Cheating History      

The records a president amasses during his tenure do not become his personal property when he leaves
office. As the Presidential Records Act of 1978 makes clear, this treasure trove of historical material
belongs to the American people. Unfortunately, neither that law, nor the public's right to be informed about the
workings of its government, dissuaded President Bush from signing an executive order earlier this month
creating new barriers to obtaining a former president's papers.

At immediate issue are 68,000 pages of records from the Reagan years. The records were eligible to be made
public last January. The White House has repeatedly postponed their release on the grounds that it needed time
to develop new procedures for handling requests because Mr. Reagan is the first former president whose
papers are subject to the 1978 act. Now comes Mr. Bush's executive order, which raises the threat of a new
era of needless secrecy regarding presidential papers.

The Presidential Records Act, enacted in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals, was designed to make sure
that the papers and tapes of future presidents could not be permanently sequestered from public view. While the
act grants access to some papers five years after a president leaves office, former presidents may withhold
sensitive records, including those revealing advice given them by aides, for up to 12 years. Mr. Bush's rules
establish a more cumbersome process. When a request is made, both the sitting president and the president
whose papers have been requested can review the documents before they are released with no time limit on
that review. If either objects to releasing the records, the person requesting the documents must then bring a
court action.

Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel who drafted the five-page executive order, says it "simply
implemented an orderly process" to deal with requests for records of former presidents once the 12-year period
has passed. That is disingenuous. The Bush order essentially ditches the law's presumption of public access in
favor of a process that grants either an incumbent president or a former president the right to withhold the
former president's papers from the public. Nor is this, as some in the White House have suggested, a matter of
protecting national security. Classified presidential documents are already exempt from public disclosure.

Critics have suggested that Mr. Bush is mainly interested in withholding documents that might be embarrassing
not only to his father, George Bush, who was Mr. Reagan's vice president, but also to other administration
officials who also served Mr. Reagan. Motives aside, historians as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle
have expressed concern that the inevitable result of the order will be to deprive scholars and even members of
Congress of material that poses no threat to national security but could do much to help Americans make sense
of their nation's past and to hold government accountable for its actions. Since Mr. Bush is unlikely to rescind
his own order, Congress must pass a law doing so.
 

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