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House Panel Reverses Bush On Archive Secrecy
Published on Friday, March 9, 2007 by Reuters
House Panel Reverses Bush On Archive Secrecy
by Peter Szekely
 

A House panel on Thursday voted to overturn a 2001 order by President George W. Bush that enables former presidents, including Bush's father, to keep some of their papers secret indefinitely.

The bipartisan bill, hailed by historians, was passed without objection on a voice vote by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The full House of Representatives is expected to vote on it next week.

"It will ensure that future historians have access to presidential records as the Presidential Records Act intended," said committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who is one of the bill's sponsors.

In November 2001, Bush issued the order, widely criticized by historians, that allowed either the White House or a former president to block the release of a former president's papers and put the onus on researchers to show a "specific need" for many types of records.

"It's slowing down the declassification of presidential documents and that's obviously a problem," said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History, which represents 70 historical and archival groups.

"Putting on these kinds of restrictions and delays just pushes back when history's going to be written," he said.

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives at George Washington University, said the average time to release presidential documents has grown to 78 months since the Bush order from 18 months. The Bush order directly contributed to one year of the lag, he said.

"The executive order is bad but it's only part of the problem," said Blanton, adding that the National Archives needs more resources and a technology upgrade.

When Bush issued his order, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who is now attorney general, said it was needed to "provide a process, an orderly process to ... deal with requests for information."

The order also bestowed on the former vice presidents the right to stop the release of their papers through a claim of executive privilege that previously only presidents could use. And it extended to deceased presidents' designees the right to use executive privilege to keep their papers secret.

Because Bush acted as the papers of former President Ronald Reagan were made available some 12 years after he left office, some historians at the time speculated that the order was meant to benefit Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, who was vice president for eight years before becoming president in 1989.

The House bill would give current and former presidents 40 business days to object to requests to view their papers, allow a sitting president to override a former president's claim of executive privilege and strip former vice presidents and the designees of deceased presidents of the power to use executive privilege to block access to documents.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited

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