Please, President-Elect Obama, Reverse Bush's Muzzling of Presidential Records





Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

On March 25, 2003, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13292 that delayed for years to come public access to millions of pages of documents that were scheduled for release. He claimed that “sensitive information” needed to be reviewed prior to the release -- though the federal government had many years to get ready for this deadline. The Bush order reversed President Bill Clinton's previous order (12958) that held a presumption in favor of disclosure. Weirdly, Bush awarded Vice President Dick Cheney the prerogative to block disclosures. And he also took the authoritarian step of empowering federal agencies to "reclassify" documents, for the most fanciful reasons, that had already been publicly released.

The leading lights of the history profession were aghast when Bush issued his Executive Order 13292 sealing virtually all "national security" related presidential records from public scrutiny. Archival documents are professional historians' raw materials and we must have transparency and open access to these primary sources not only to fulfill our obligations as active researchers and scholars but also to examine and interpret accurately the meaning of our nation's past.

The historian Sean Wilentz, in his superb new book, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974 - 2008, states in one of his footnotes that some of the key documents from the mid-1980s regarding President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy still remain classified. The Bush executive order has made it far more difficult for historians to gain access to crucial public documents that shed light on the record of presidential administrations in our recent past -- Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Bill Clinton -- which amounts to a most unflattering tone akin to that of governments, such as the old Soviet Union, that went to great lengths to cover up the behind-the-scenes business of government.

Bush's ill-conceived and undemocratic order undermines faith in American democracy by creating the strong impression the government has something to hide. If the United States is incapable of dealing with its own history and its own past actions honestly and openly, then how on earth can we preach to other nations about the superiority of "democracy" and "freedom"? This nation has been through a lot in the past thirty years and our citizens deserve the antiseptic that only the glare of the klieg lights and full disclosure can provide.

I hope, and I know that the vast majority of my colleagues agree with me, that President Barack Obama will move with haste to reverse this stifling and censorious executive order that only serves to spread suspicion and paranoia about our government's intentions and past actions. Only with a full accounting of our recent past, with trained historians leading the way, can we begin to bring our lofty rhetoric about "freedom" and "democracy" in alignment with our deeds. If there is a single lesson we must take away from the miserable years under the reign of George W. Bush it is this: We must practice what we preach. And openness and free access to our nation's public records, no matter how potentially embarrassing or shocking they may be, is essential for us to do so.

Over three decades ago, Idaho Senator Frank Church led an effort that shone a bright light on the secret misdeeds of the Central Intelligence Agency and other "national security" institutions. Not only did the Republic survive, it thrived because the Church Committee's revelations sparked Congress to enact badly needed reforms -- such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (abused by Bush) -- that helped steer the country away from damaging and counterproductive secret foreign policy actions that ran contrary to American values.

If the nation could learn from the shocking and damaging revelations of the Church Committee thirty years ago, I think the United States is resilient enough to withstand the effects of any revelation, no matter how "controversial," dating back to the 1980s and 1990s that a reopening and a quick declassifying of presidential documents will reveal today.

Granting open access to public documents to historians is not, and should not be, an "ideological" issue. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, should all agree that interpreting the meaning of our nation's past is essential for the United States to be a beacon to the rest of the world for the free flow of information. How can we criticize the Chinese or the Russians for censoring the Internet if we ourselves are blocking historians from accessing our own government's public records? The lesson is clear. As Robert F. Kennedy concluded in one of his most important speeches on the Vietnam War: "For today as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free."


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Brian Robertson - 11/27/2008

Maarja, very well put. Once again, your knowledge dazzles me!


Mark Reitz - 11/24/2008

Except that this article was written not as a general disavowal of all things Bush, but rather as a retort against the Bushian policies tying up all historical records for all time! (/sarcasm off) Well, except for the fact that Maarja Krusten has debunked the thesis of the original article and brought to light the process by which the archival works.

Sometimes I wonder what those afflicted with BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) are going to do with all their pent-up energy once Bush is no longer on the scene.


Arnold Shcherban - 11/21/2008

"At least you lay your bias on the line."
Bias? More like natural reaction to
all lies, distortions, and violations
of the international and US laws Bush administration (though many others have not been much better) has produced in the course of the last eight years - the fact that has already been proven beyond any reasonable doubts.
You may with the same degree of validity call biased anyone who believes in Pythagorean theorem.


Mark Reitz - 11/19/2008

I thank you for your in depth explanation and insight regarding the archives and records release, and appreciate the effort you have made to enlighten readers regarding process. Factual information devoid of animus and agenda is always a better read at a site devoted to history.


Maarja Krusten - 11/19/2008

If you are interested in the history of classification/declassification, and the executive orders, take a look at the history from 1996 that was posted on a government website. I believe it was prepared during the period of the Clinton opennness initiatives. See
https://www.osti.gov/opennet/forms.jsp?formurl=od/history.html

I also recommend the 1997 Moynihan Commission report ("Report of the Commission on Reducing and Protecting Government Secrecy"). See
http://www.access.gpo.gov/congress/commissions/secrecy/index.html

As you can see from the history at the first link, executive orders have been issued since the 1940s to cover classified information. E.O. 12958, the Clinton E.O., was one in a line of many executive orders. Bill Leonard's speeches, two of which I linked to above, are good sources for a balanced view of these matters. Leonard is a stand up guy.

You mentioned the Nixon tapes. I worked with them as an employee of the National Archives from 1976 to 1990. I was one of a small group of NARA employees tasked with reviewing the Nixon tapes to see what could be released to the public. Ironically, it is Nixon who started the systematic review of government records in a declassification initiative during the 1970s.

Based on my experiences working with Nixon tapes, I believe it can be extremely difficult to release information from White House records while a President still is alive. However, it really comes down to the individuals involved.

Every action taken with federal records during their life cycle involves human beings, from the creators of records to those who screen them for public access. Simply put, much depends on who is involved.

I've been working as an historian since 1990 but my archival roots remain strong. Still, I've found the archival ethos difficult to explain -- or, at least, to get people outside NARA to buy into it. I recently described it this way in another forum:

"Agency and departmental employees are supposed to keep in mind their stewardship obligations. That includes protecting their agencies from inappropriate political pressure. As a hypothetical, what if I still had been working at the National Archives in 2000, when that agency made one of its last releases of Nixon's tapes (disclosures have been on hold since 2003). It would have been unethical for a DNC official to come in to see me and to ask, 'We're trying to undermine George W. Bush's campaign for President. Can you help us? Can you release those segments of the Nixon tapes in which Nixon met with or discussed his father, George H. W. Bush? We're trying to embarrass the Bush campaign.'

It also would have been wrong for a member of the RNC to come see me during the 1980s and to say, 'Can you guys slow walk or find excuses not to release any of the Nixon tapes? We really don't want anything to be released while George H. W. Bush is President. He was, after all, RNC chairman during Nixon's term.'

Had anyone tried to do that, I would have rebuffed them. I would have understood my stewardship obligations to my agency, obligations which do not change from administration to administration."

Historians pay almost no attention to archival matters, perhaps they are too busy to do so. In my view, the best protection for archivists is the strong support from historians -- based on an honest interest in an ethical, reasonable, nonpartisan and objective approach which respects laws and regulations and supports the proper balancing of stakeholder interests.


Mark Reitz - 11/18/2008

"I do not trust the Bush Administration -- I have a hunch they have been involved in activities not unlike the Church Committee exposed. Whatever it takes. No matter how much it costs."

At least you lay your bias on the line. As noted by Krusten, it was President Bill Clinton who signed Executive Order 12958 in 1995 and that was affirmed by President Bush in 2003. Does the author bear the same animus against President Clinton for enacting the executive order, or does he only hate all things done by President Bush?


Joseph Palermo - 11/17/2008

Great and detailed critique of my little piece! Thank you for taking the time to provide all of these vital links. You have clarified the issues involved quite well. I'm not an archivist, but a historian. I think a nation that can land a human on the moon and wire up the world in a global net of communications probably can handle declassifying documents. Most of your concerns involve just the physical task itself of declassifying. I'm referring to the sensitive documents that mean something -- not Donald Rumsfeld's laundry list. I would prioritize the doucments -- if there is a Bush program going on right now that could cause blowback (like 9-11) then I think in a democracy we have a right to know no matter what Cheney or other national security "experts" like Eagleburger or Kissinger have to say about it. There is a tape recording of April 25, 1972 where Richard Nixon is talking about dropping an Atomic Bomb on Hanoi with Kissinger -- at the time Nixon was assuring the American citizenry that he was pursuing "Peace." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Or when the assassination attempts on Fidel Castro were exposed it sparked Congressional inquiries into the killings of JFK and MLK. That's what I'm talking about. Or the overthrow of Mossedegh in Iran in 1953 -- we have a nation of 70 million people that hates our guts because of that CIA covert op. As a citizen and as a historian I should have a right to know what my government is doing in my name. I do not trust the Bush Administration -- I have a hunch they have been involved in activities not unlike the Church Committee exposed. Whatever it takes. No matter how much it costs. As a historian I believe this nation must come up with the money and personnel to declassify all of the records possible as quickly as possible. Call me an idealist -- but if we taxpayers can give $165 billion to AIG I think we can giver $5 billion to the National Archives.


Maarja Krusten - 11/17/2008

I used to work in the National Archives with Presidential records where it was my job to apply pertinent orders and regulations. My late twin sister was a senior archivist in the Archives' records declassification division, the unit which handles records declassification of a broad array of federal records. (Presidential records and the records of executive agencies and departments are controlled by different statutes although some of the same executive orders apply.)

So I can clarify several points here. But where to begin?

OK, first, the title. The title of this piece (which, knowing HNN, may not have been assigned by the author) implies that it is about Presidential Records. I clicked on the piece, thinking it was about E.O. 13233, the order which permits former Presidents, Vice Presidents and their designees to claim communications privilege over Presidential records which the National Archives has declassified or otherwise screened and marked for discosure. (see
http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=128867&;bheaders=1#128867
) Nope. It's about E.O. 12958, as amended by E.O. 13292. So the author really appears to be talking about the records of a Presidential administration, not about Presidential records. The distinction is important, as E.O. 13233 applies to the latter but not the former.

E.O. 12958, as amended, deals with national security classified information wherever it is found throughout the federal government's record holding. Its scope is broad as it affects departmental and agency records under the Federal Records Act as well as the material generated within the White House under Presidential Records Act. To see what the amended Executive Order on classified records is all about, take a look at the remarks made by William Leonard, then director of the National Archives' Office of Information Security Oversight (ISOO),in 2004. Before I provide the link, a few words about Leonard and why you should read what he says.

Bill Leonard was an exemplary federal official.. He's the one who sought to look at the handling of classified materials in the Office of the Vice President. (And had to leave government service soon thereafter: see “Challenging Cheney -- A National Archives official reveals what the veep wanted to keep classified--and how he tried to challenge the rules” at http://www.newsweek.com/id/81883/
Leonard is the one to whom Maureen Dowd was referring in a column in the NYT when she wrote in 2007, "archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington."

Here's the link to Bill Leonard's speech, which explains what E.O. 12958 and E.O. 13292 are all about:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/wl010904.html
Again, Bill is solid and what he says *always* is worth considering.

Finally a few questions for Dr. Palermo.

(1) How would you handle the questions surrounding "bulk declassification" that arose during the Clinton administration?

(2) How would you balance the public's right to know against the need to protect security in the current environment?

(3) See this article on the National Archives for one take on the impact on page-by-page declassification review -- The Washington Post, May 19, 2001, “DOE Puts Declassification Into Reverse: Reviewers Combing Historic Files at Archives for Data to Reclassify as Secret,” at
http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2001/05/wp051901.html What is your take on the Kyl-Lott amendment which was passed at the end of the Clinton administration?

(4) Access to records depends not just on orders, regulations, statutes and guidance, but also on resources at the National Archives. Remember, the access you seek is going to come primarily through the National Archives.

Civil agencies' budgets (which depend on appropriated funds, hence tax revenues) probably will be extremely tight in the near future. The National Archives' unit in which my sister worked to open classified records for public research was affected by budget constraints during the nearly 20 years she worked there. See an article from 2007, “How to Bury a Secret? Turn it into Paperwork.” I can vouch for what it says as I know and respect several of the people quoted in the article (including Neil Carmichael, Jeanne Schauble).
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/15/AR2007011501216_pf.html

What if you were in charge? What would you do in practical terms to handle what is described in the article? It touches on what you seek – access – but notes that:

“At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, something profound happened in the government secrecy system. With little fanfare, the paradigm of secrecy shifted.

The days when secrets would be secret forever officially ended that night. Some 700 million pages of secret documents became unsecret. No longer were they classified. They became . . . public. Imagine it: Some 400 million formerly classified pages at the National Archives, another 270 million at the FBI, 30 million elsewhere, all emerging into the sunshine of open government, squinting and pale, like naked mole rats.

This would seem a victory for freedom of information, just as President Bill Clinton envisioned when he signed Executive Order 12958 in 1995 (affirmed by President Bush in 2003), which mandated that 25-year-old documents be automatically declassified unless exempted for national security or other reasons.

But it is not so simple. There is a dirty little secret about these secrets: They remain secreted away. You still can't rush down to the National Archives to check them out. In fact, it could be years before these public documents can be viewed by the public.

Fifty archivists can process 40 million pages in a year, but now they are facing 400 million.”

How do you see the National Archives prioritizing its essential functions going forward? Consider the question as if you were Allen Weinstein (who heads the Archives and given the fact that there is a presumption that the Archivist serves 10 years, although that is not codified in statute, may stay in his position until 2015). Keep in mind, of course, that for every allocation an agency head makes for one program, he has to withhold money from another.

The Archives has been pouring a lot of money into its Electronic Records Archive initiative in recent years. But it briefly had to curtail weekend research room hours a couple of years ago because it just could not fund that part of its bread-and-butter operations.

Finally, consider another speech Bill Leonard gave in 2004 on needed balance in classification. You don't want to over- or under-classify information. Since your article takes a end-of-records-life-cycle approach to this question, you might also want to think about the beginning of that cycle. See
http://www.archives.gov/isoo/speeches-and-articles/ncms-2004.html

That’s all I have time for this morning but I hope it helps!


Maarja Krusten - 11/17/2008

I used to work in the National Archives with Presidential records where it was my job to pertinent orders and regulations. My late twin sister was a senior archivist in the Archives' division, the unit which handles records declassification of a broad array of federal records. (Presidential records and the records of executive agencies and departments are controlled by different statutes although some of the same executive orders apply.)

So I can clarify several points here. But where to begin?

OK, first, the title. The title of this piece (which, knowing HNN, may not have been assigned by the author) implies that it is about Presidential Records. I clicked on the piece, thinking it was about E.O. 13233, the order which permits former Presidents, Vice Presidents and their designees to claim communications privilege over Presidential records which the National Archives has declassified or otherwise screened and marked for discosure. (see
http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=128867&;bheaders=1#128867
) Nope. It's about E.O. 12958, as amended by E.O. 13292. So the author really appears to be talking about the records of a Presidential administration, not about Presidential records. The distinction is important, as E.O. 13233 applies to the latter but not the former.

E.O. 12958, as amended, deals with national security classified information wherever it is found throughout the federal government's record holding. Its scope is broad as it affects departmental and agency records under the Federal Records Act as well as the material generated within the White House under Presidential Records Act. To see what the amended Executive Order on classified records is all about, take a look at the remarks made by William Leonard, then director of the National Archives' Office of Information Security Oversight (ISOO),in 2004. Before I provide the link, a few words about Leonard and why you should read what he says.

Bill Leonard was an exemplary federal official.. He's the one who sought to look at the handling of classified materials in the Office of the Vice President. (And had to leave government service soon thereafter: see “Challenging Cheney -- A National Archives official reveals what the veep wanted to keep classified--and how he tried to challenge the rules” at http://www.newsweek.com/id/81883/
Leonard is the one to whom Maureen Dowd was referring in a column in the NYT when she wrote in 2007, "archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington."

Here's the link to Bill Leonard's speech, which explains what E.O. 12958 and E.O. 13292 are all about:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/wl010904.html
Again, Bill is solid and what he says *always* is worth considering.

Finally a few questions for Dr. Palermo.

(1) How would you handle the questions surrounding "bulk declassification" that arose during the Clinton administration?

(2) How would you balance the public's right to know against the need to protect security in the current environment?

(3) See this article on the National Archives for one take on its impact on page-by-page declassification review -- The Washington Post, May 19, 2001, “DOE Puts Declassification Into Reverse: Reviewers Combing Historic Files at Archives for Data to Reclassify as Secret,” at
http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2001/05/wp051901.html What is your take on the Kyl-Lott amendment which was passed at the end of the Clinton administration?

(4) Access to records depends not just on orders, regulations, statutes and guidance, but also on resources at the National Archives. Remember, the access you seek is going to come primarily through the National Archives.

Civil agencies' budgets (which depend on appropriated funds, hence tax revenues) probably will be extremely tight in the near future. The National Archives' unit in which my sister worked to open classified records for public research was affected by budget constraints during the nearly 20 years she worked there. See an article from 2007, “How to Bury a Secret? Turn it into Paperwork.” I can vouch for what it says as I know and respect several of the people quoted in the article (including Neil Carmichael, Jeanne Schauble).
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/15/AR2007011501216_pf.html
What if you were in charge? What would you do in practical terms to handle what is described in the article? It touches on what you seek – access – but notes that:
“At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, something profound happened in the government secrecy system. With little fanfare, the paradigm of secrecy shifted.
The days when secrets would be secret forever officially ended that night. Some 700 million pages of secret documents became unsecret. No longer were they classified. They became . . . public. Imagine it: Some 400 million formerly classified pages at the National Archives, another 270 million at the FBI, 30 million elsewhere, all emerging into the sunshine of open government, squinting and pale, like naked mole rats.
This would seem a victory for freedom of information, just as President Bill Clinton envisioned when he signed Executive Order 12958 in 1995 (affirmed by President Bush in 2003), which mandated that 25-year-old documents be automatically declassified unless exempted for national security or other reasons.
But it is not so simple. There is a dirty little secret about these secrets: They remain secreted away. You still can't rush down to the National Archives to check them out. In fact, it could be years before these public documents can be viewed by the public.
Fifty archivists can process 40 million pages in a year, but now they are facing 400 million.”
How do you see the National Archives prioritizing its essential functions going forward? Consider the question as if you were Allen Weinstein (who heads the Archives and given the fact that there is a presumption that the Archivist serves 10 years, although that is not codified in statute, may stay in his position until 2015). Keep in mind, of course, that for every allocation an agency head makes for one program, he has to withhold money from another. The Archives has been pouring a lot of money into its Electronic Records Archive initiative in recent years. But it briefly had to curtail weekend research room hours a couple of years ago because it just could not fund that part of its bread-and-butter operations.

Finally, consider another speech Bill Leonard gave in 2004 on needed balance in classification. You don't want to over- or under-classify information. Since your article takes a end-of-records-life-cycle approach to this question, you might also want to think about the beginning of that cycle. See
http://www.archives.gov/isoo/speeches-and-articles/ncms-2004.html

That’s all I have time for this morning but I hope it helps provide clarification and perspective!

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