Bush Says More Privacy for Me, Less Privacy for You
Hiding presidential papers
Ever since September 11, American citizens have been told over and over that we must accept less privacy and allow more government agencies to observe and police our activities. But at the same time, President Bush and his cronies were secretly trying to get themselves exempted, and to extend their own secrecy far beyond the range of current law.
Read about it. Here are portions of a recent editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle.
by Ruth Rosen
"A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
-- James Madison, father of the Constitution.
President Bush's sudden move to restrict public access to presidential papers has ignited a firestorm of protest from archivists, historians and journalists.
Should you care? Yes, and here's why. Although most of us will never use presidential archives, we depend on historians and journalists who need these documents to write our political history, to scrutinize the public record and to keep the past honest. In short, a free and democratic society requires open archives.
We fought long and hard for public access to governmental records. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the public grew weary of hearing half-truths and outright lies from government officials.
In 1974, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, which guaranteed citizens access to public information.
Four years later, the Presidential Records Act, which defied Richard Nixon's last attempt to conceal his papers and tape recordings, stated that presidential records are the property of the government and do not belong to former presidents. In a spirit of compromise, the act guaranteed public access to papers 12 years after a president has left office.
Last January, former President Reagan's most sensitive records became available for public scrutiny. The Bush administration, however, delayed the release of some 68,000 records three times.
Then, on Nov. 1, President Bush issued an executive order that gives himself -- as well as former presidents -- the right to veto requests to open any presidential records. Even if a former president wants his records to be released, the executive order permits Bush to exercise executive privilege. It also gives him and former presidents an indefinite amount of time to ponder any requests.
Bush's executive order openly violates the Presidential Records Act passed by Congress in 1978.
In defending the executive order, the White House has argued that these new restrictions balance public access with "national security concerns." But few archivists, journalists or historians believe that national security has anything to do with Bush's executive order. That is because national security documents are already excluded from public scrutiny. Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, an umbrella group that represents more than 60 organizations, says, "These claims have no bearing on national security, or on information that may be of use to terrorists."
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists agrees. "We are not talking about protecting national security information of properly classified documents."
Those who study the presidency and political decision-making are rightly outraged. Hugh Davis Graham, a presidential historian at Vanderbilt University, charges the Bush administration with trying to "reverse an act of Congress with an executive order." Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, notes that "The Presidential Records Act was designed to shift power over presidential records to the government and ultimately to the citizens. This shifts the power back."
Former President Clinton also opposes the new order; he wants the public to have full access to his papers.
What, then, prompted Bush to issue such a controversial executive order? Critics note that, aside from Bill Clinton, the 1978 act will affect the presidential papers of Ronald Reagan, Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, as well as the vice-presidential papers in each administration.
What kinds of information, they ask, might President Bush wish to protect from public scrutiny?
Anna Nelson, an historian at American University, is hardly alone in suspecting that the White House is worried about what the Reagan and Bush papers may reveal about officials who worked in those administrations and are now part of George W. Bush's inner circle. They include, for example, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and Budget Director Mitch Daniel Jr. "There may in fact be embarrassing documents," concedes White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, "but that would not be considered a legitimate reason to withhold archives from historians and journalists."
If not embarrassing moments, then what?
There is, of course, no end to growing speculation. That is the problem with trying to suppress information. It inevitably raises the question, "What is he trying to hide?"
Consider, for example, the Iran-Contra scandal that tainted the Reagan administration. In order to finance opposition to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, certain high-level administration officials sold weapons to Iran. This was illegal. But despite a huge public scandal, no government official ever went to prison. At the time, some suspected that then-Vice President George Bush, a previous head of the CIA, knew more than he let on about the illegal Iran-Contra scheme. The elder Bush, however, always protested that he "was out of the loop."
Still, other historians think that the current Bush White House, deeply immersed in the war on terrorism, may be worried about fresh revelations that detail the Reagan administration's strong financial support of the Taliban as they rose to power.
Although the president may have hoped that this executive order might go unnoticed, the backlash is already fierce. Archivists and historians have accused the White House of using heightened public interest in national security as an excuse for quashing access to presidential papers. Members of both political parties have also condemned Bush's attempt to suppress public information. Last week, Rep. Steven Horn, R-Long Beach, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, even held hearings on the executive order.
To deny the public's right to presidential papers is a violation of the law -- as well as the spirit of a democratic society. President Bush should rescind his executive order immediately. If not, Congress should act quickly to overturn this high-handed order.
At stake is nothing less than the public's right to know how our democracy works -- in the past, as well as in the present.
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