On November 1, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13233, which ends 27 years of Congressional and judicial efforts to make Presidential papers and records publicly available.
This Executive Order suggests that Bush not only doesn?t want Americans to know what he?s doing, he also doesn?t want to worry that historians will someday find out. That is the message in this effort to prevent public access to Presidential papers ? not only his, but those of all Presidents since the Reagan-Bush administration.
Secrecy is important to Bush. He has hired only loyal, leak-proof staffers. He has had his records as the Governor of Texas hidden, shipping them off to his father?s Presidential library, where they are inaccessible. Not since Richard Nixon has there been such an effort to keep the real work of a President hidden.
While this effort started before September 11th, the events of that day have become the justification for even greater secrecy. There were the secret arrests of terror-related suspects (currently over 1,000 publicly unknown people). There has been the expansion of the wiretap granting powers of a secret federal court hidden within the Department of Justice. There is a policy of preventing news organizations and congressional leaders from obtaining access to anything other than official news about the war in Afghanistan.
There has been some confusion about the meaning of the President's actions in addressing Presidential papers. He has not repealed the existing law, because he does not have that power. But he has modified the law, and made its procedures far more complex and restrictive. In doing so, he has exceeded his executive powers under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which recognizes the Freedom of Information Act.
Bush has shifted the burden to the person seeking the material. Under the Executive Order, the person seeking material must show that he should be given it; it is no longer necessary for the former President to show why material must not be disclosed. It also creates an elaborate procedure for an incumbent President to block his predecessor from releasing documents. Under Bush?s order, a former President can indefinitely block release of his material, which is not possible under existing law.
What appears to have provoked President Bush?s action is the fact that 68,000 documents from the Reagan presidency were waiting at the White House when Bush arrived, ready for release by the National Archives. These documents passed the twelve-year deadline for public release on January 12, 2001, but their release has been stalled by the Bush White House until now. The documents are believed to contain records that George Bush Sr., as Reagan?s Vice President, does not want made public. They also contain the papers of others who are now working for George Bush Jr., who might be embarrassed by their release.
While secrecy is necessary to fight a war, this Nixon-style secrecy is not necessary to run the country. As former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said in his report on government secrecy, ?Behind closed doors, there is no guarantee that the most basic of individual freedoms will be preserved. And as we enter the 21st Century, the great fear we have for our democracy is the enveloping culture of government secrecy and the corresponding distrust of government that follows.?
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