Published on Thursday, November 15, 2001 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
We Can Only Guess What Secrets Bush Is Keeping
by Marie Cocco
BLACK SMOKE rises up from terrorism and war, perfect concealment for a Bush administration assault of a different kind. This other attack is on history itself.
The White House has delayed nearly a year the scheduled release of thousands of presidential documents from the Reagan administration. The stall has now, in a way, ended. The records remain secret. They will, most likely, forevermore.
President George W. Bush signed an executive order that promises to scrub the truth out of presidential history after Jimmy Carter. It is, even in this White House with a penchant for secrecy, an extravagant indulgence of the habit.
Under Bush's order, any incumbent president - that is, Bush himself - can block release of presidential documents of a predecessor. He can do this even if the past president wants the records disclosed. A former president who wants to keep secrets could do so, too, with or without agreement of the incumbent.
The Bush order effectively works like this: A Republican like Bush - say, one whose top advisers did their first tour of duty in a previous Republican administration and could be embarrassed by old White House files - could just keep them locked up. This proves especially convenient if the incumbent president's father, in fact, served as vice president under a previous Republican administration and has his own papers in the vault.
A Democrat - say Al Gore, who served as vice president under Bill Clinton - could come into office and decide unilaterally to keep boxes of old Democratic papers off-limits.
The Bush order also gives family members of a deceased or disabled former president these privileges. Bush would enable Nancy Reagan to one day claim authority to keep her husband's papers secret; so, too, might Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Bush's own mother could out-do them both. She could sift through papers of two presidents and decide what is, or is not, to be seen by history. Thanks, Mom.
Private control over public papers is what the Presidential Records Act of 1978 was to end. The post-Watergate law made White House records property of the people, not the presidents. It set a 12-year timetable after a president leaves office for release of sensitive material. This made the Reagan papers eligible for release in January.
And this is the law Bush now shreds. The administration, as is its custom, does little to explain. It talks of need for an "orderly process" for releasing records. White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales claims, as well, the desire to protect "records that could impact national security."
This is how they cover up the cover-up.
Classified national security material isn't covered by the act at all. It isn't even reviewed for release for 25 years, according to the National Archives.
And there was nothing disorderly about the release of Carter's White House documents, nor those of former President Gerald R. Ford. That is because these presidents disclosed about everything. Ford, instinctively decent, followed the emerging outlines of the records law, though as he left office it hadn't yet passed.
No one has come forward to declare this Bush restriction welcome, or necessary. Historians are apoplectic. Reagan's librarians already were preparing a big release when the White House called it to a halt.
Congress grumbles. Its members - notably Republicans in the House - grouse about their own curtailed right to have a look. Clinton, through his longtime aide Bruce Lindsey, has publicly opposed the strictures as unneeded and contrary to the law's intent.
Just this week, Lindsey said in an interview, he searched papers relating to presidential gifts that had been requested by Rep. Douglas Ose (R-Calif.). The memos from White House lawyers were clearly eligible for disclosure before now. They could just as clearly be withheld under Bush's new order.
"We could have unilaterally withheld them, but we didn't," Lindsey said.
None desires this secrecy, save the current occupant of the White House. We are left only to guess at why. And to shiver at all the possibilities, now and in the future.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.