BOULDER, Colo. - As the last few days of the administration wind down, it is worth noting an executive order President George W. Bush quietly signed early in his presidency. On Nov. 1, 2001, he signed Executive Order 13233, overriding the 1978 Presidential Records Act
Born out of the Watergate scandal, the records act makes a president's papers available to the public 12 years after he leaves office. But now, Bush's new rules means a president -- this would include former President Bill Clinton and, eventually President-elect Barack Obama -- can veto the release of documents. It gives the power to the individual presidents, and away from the office of the presidency.
Laughably, Bush's executive order was titled "Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act."
If Clinton, Bush, or eventually Obama, chooses to keep his records private, citizen groups will have to sue for access.
These are not the papers of individual men; they are the records of the U.S. presidency. Which means they belong to us. The U.S. House passed a bill that would negate the order; it is under consideration by a Senate committee now.
Bush's order was an early volley, the echoes of which are seen in many recent examples of the federal government assaulting the public's right to information.
In December, the Department of Energy proposed a rule to eliminate the "public interest" rule when determining what to release to the public. The Department of Education has expanded its authority to refuse release of materials even after they are redacted to remove students' names and identifying information. Even this week, the Bush administration refused to provide Congress documents about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
Optimistic that Bush's presidential papers order will be negated -- this is Congress' third attempt -- open-government advocates have asked a federal judge to declare that Vice President Dick Cheney's records are covered under the 1978 act. Specifically, they want access to the records that illustrate his role in forming U.S. policy during his vice presidency, and lumping him into the records act would legally prohibit him from destroying documents on his way out the door.
President-elect Obama has promised to be an agent of change.
However, the seasoned reporters who covered his presidential campaign said it was remarkable in how tightly it was controlled, with strict and careful rules about media access to any and all information.
The campaign is over now, though. If Obama truly wants to bring about change, fighting for Americans' long-valued freedom to access government information should be on his agenda.