Issue 84, Winter 2001/2002

With a stroke of the pen on Nov. 1, President Bush stabbed history in the back and blocked Americans’ right to know how presidents (and vice presidents) have made decisions. Executive Order 13223 ended more than 30 years of increasing openness in government.

From now on, scholars, journalists and any other citizens will have to show a demonstrated, specific “need to know” in requesting documents from the Reagan, Clinton and two Bush presidencies—and all others to come. And if someone asks to see records never made public during a presidency but deposited in the National Archives by a former president, the requester will now have to receive the permission of both the former president and the current one.

My response was to send President Bush a couple of books on recent presidencies, along with a note saying they might become valuable artifacts because his order could prevent writers from doing similar research without approval from two presidents. I also attached a letter from his father to me explaining how important it is to document presidential decision-making.

Archival research is grinding work. It takes years of perseverance to follow the paper trail documenting how the nation goes to war or raises taxes, or how presidents choose their staffs. But the search becomes worthwhile when you see John F. Kennedy’s initials on a memo talking of the possibility of a Berlin wall weeks before the Communists put it up, or when you find Richard Nixon asking Henry Kissinger, in a note, “Is it possible we were wrong from the start in Vietnam”?

There are rules upon rules about which presidential papers become available and when—and some of them defy all reason. For more than 25 years, an inscription by the Irish writer Brendan Behan to President Kennedy was withheld from researchers by the National Archives and Records Administration, apparently because it was written on a copy of Evergreen Review, a literary magazine considered racy in those days. But the complicated rules have been changing in the direction of more access since the Freedom of Information Act became law on July 4, 1966.

From 1981, when the Presidential Records Act went into effect, until Mr. Bush issued his order, a citizen could request to review some presidential papers five years after the end of a presidency, or ask for all but the most sensitive records after 12 years. Ronald Reagan’s records were the first to become available under the 12-year rule—except that they did not become available, because the Bush administration chose to review the policy for the past nine months.

That review resulted in the recent order. The White House reassured me that you can still go to court if an administration denies you access to archived information. Right. If you have years and tens of thousands of dollars to spare to take your case to the federal courts.

The White House argues that premature disclosure of decision memos and the like could stifle dialogue among presidential advisers. The administration’s second reason—to make the process more “orderly”—is simply ludicrous. It is hard to see how double presidential oversight will speed things up, unless the idea is to just say no.

And I think that is the idea. There may be Reagan-era records that could be embarrassing to some men and women now back in power with the second Bush administration.

Perhaps even more pertinent, they may not want to spend their retirements, 12 years after George W. Bush leaves office, defending the wartime decisions they are making now.