WASHINGTON - A group of historians and citizens' groups filed suit here in a bid to quash an executive order by President George W. Bush, which they charge severely restricts access to presidential records.
The executive order -- signed on November 1 -- reinterprets the 1978 Presidential Records Act, adopted after the Watergate scandal and former president Richard Nixon's subsequent crusade to keep his White House records and tapes under wraps.
While the act provided for presidential records to be made available to the public 12 years after a president leaves office, the new decree gives the White House or former presidents veto powers on the release of such documents.
The parties to Wednesday's lawsuit -- the American Historical Association, the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the Organization of American Historians, Public Citizen, the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press and history professors Hugh Graham and Stanley Kutler -- charge that Bush's decree tries to "take the power back" from the people.
"The Presidential Records Act of 1978 was meant to shift power over White House documents from former presidents to professional government archivists and, ultimately, to the public," National Security Archive director Thomas Blanton said in a statement.
"But the Bush order attempts to overturn the law, take the power back, and let presidents past and present delay public access indefinitely."
White House spokesman Jimmy Orr maintained that the executive order "outlined the clear process for implementation of the Presidential Records Act, which is based on sound law and sound policy."
"The lawsuit, in reality, is attacking the Supreme Court decision of 1977, which held that former presidents retain the constitutionally based privilege even after they have left office," he told AFP.
Meanwhile, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook charged in a separate statement that Bush's decree "violates not only the spirit but the letter of the law."
"We will not stand by while the administration tramples on the people's right to find out about their own government," Claybrook said, adding that presidents "should not have the ability to arbitrarily withhold public information to hide wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment."
"It's interesting that the first beneficiary of this new doctrine would be the father of the man who announced it," Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson added in the statement, referring to Bush's father, former president George Bush, who served as vice president under Ronald Reagan before becoming commander in chief himself in 1989.
Reagan was to be the first former US leader whose papers were subject to the act, and some 68,000 pages of his records should have been released in January 2001.
"In effect, the executive order makes the release of records dependent on the good graces of the former president," Nelson lamented.
"By giving presidents back the power to cover up inconvenient documents, the executive order has inevitably made people wonder what they may be trying to hide."
Earlier this month, Bush said that in signing the executive order he had merely established a "process that I think will enable historians to do their job and at the same time protect state secrets. That's why I did what I did."
Copyright © 2001 AFP