WaPo Editorial: Presidential Papers belong to history

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HISTORIANS WON a small victory last week in their quest to lift the heavy cloak of privilege from papers generated by the president and his White House staff. A federal judge ruled that the National Archives should have the final say on when those papers are publicly released. But that action takes care of only part of the problem. Congress has before it a law that would make as many of those documents available as possible. The only obstacle is Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).

Since 1978, a president has been allowed to hold back certain records from public view for 12 years after leaving the White House. In addition, a 1989 executive order from President Ronald Reagan lets former occupants of the Oval Office ask the sitting president to withhold certain records. If the request is refused, the former president can go to court to stop their release. Then came President Bush's 2001 executive order, which compelled presidents to honor the requests of their predecessors. And in an unprecedented bit of overreaching, Mr. Bush extended the right of executive privilege to relatives of the president and the vice president. Archivists can go to court to try to get the records released, but even if their lawsuits are successful, current and former presidents could delay the release of records indefinitely.

Because that "effectively eliminates" the discretion of the National Archives, which by law has the power to release presidential documents, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in an Oct. 1 ruling, invalidated the indefinite presidential review of privileged records. Left in place, though, was the broad cloak of privilege for the president's relatives and for the vice president that Mr. Bush's executive order imposed. The Presidential Records Act Amendment of 2007, sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), would take care of that by undoing the order and giving current and former presidents no more than 40 days to review privileged documents before they are released.

But Mr. Bunning is blocking the bill. He didn't return our call, but he was quoted in the Dallas Morning News last month as saying, "The president ought to have the right to withhold any records he chooses" and that former presidents should have "a reasonable amount of time" to release their records. Mr. Bunning's hold and his rationale are unacceptable. Presidential records belong to history because they help provide insight into the decisions made by a president and his administration. More important, because they are the byproducts of work done on behalf of the nation, those records belong to the people of the United States.

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vaughn davis bornet - 10/19/2007

In 1952 I spent several weeks in the FDR papers. Later I worked quite awhile in the Hoover, Truman, Johnson, and Eisenhower papers. It does seem to me, in retrospect and thinking of all the problems that little is really gained by interchanges in public among, shall we say, the normally disinterested, or maybe they are just amateurs. The problem is that, to coin something, "papers are not just papers." Take the Lady Bird materials, including the Diary. Or the papers of various major aides. The White House Diary--is it totally available to show who the president saw, and when? The very idea that the widow of the powerful man has any rights at all to official papers is..., well, words fail me. That her papers might be opened casually without her sorting and guidance seems problematic. Above all, is an old buddy of the president in full charge? Well, now. One can show up far too soon, before staff build a structure of finding aids. How much will the Archives charge per sheet to copy things? It's not irrelevant.

It's late, and I must to bed.

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ashland, Oregon, yesterday's veteran of all this, who once outlined a book on "Presidential Libraries" but did the Johnson book instead.

Maarja Krusten - 10/17/2007

The Post's op ed inexplicably asserts that "Archivists can go to court to try to get the records released, but even if their lawsuits are successful, current and former presidents could delay the release of records indefinitely."

If you examine the orders and regulations governing access to Presidential records, you can see that it is researchers who may go to court to press for release of materials. I am mystified as to why the Post believes the National Archives (a subordinate agency within the executive branch, with a Presidentially appointed chief) would have the ability to go to court to sue to get released materials in its holdings that a President wants closed.

Whether you look at commentaries such as the Post's editorial, or some of the postings that cropped up here on HNN in 2004 initially when Allen Weinstein first was nominated to be U.S. Archivist, it's clear that many misperceptions surround the nation's record keeper and the challenges its chief faces. Unlike other executive branch agencies, NARA has not been the subject of study by scholars. People know it primarily from its press releases and from their own experiences as researchers. Not surprisingly, I suppose, few people understand how the U.S. Archivist might interact with his agency's own officials (the Archives Listserv at least has had some useful discussion of that) and with officials outside NARA. As much as I would like to see people advocating effectively on behalf of NARA, it looks as if that is unlikely to occur.