Bush Era Of Secrecy May Be Coming To An End

George W. Bush has presided over the most secrecy-obsessed administration in the history of the country. More documents have been classified than at any other time. White House officials have defied court orders to disclose data, calendars, and emails. They even claimed that the vice-president was not subject to Congressional demands for information from the White House because he was not a part of the executive branch of government.

Bill Moyers, in a superb speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive brilliantly articulated the urgency with which Bush pursued the suppression of public data:

“Bush and Cheney have made the Freedom of Information Act their number one target, more fervently pursued for elimination than Osama Bin Laden. No sooner had he come to office than George W. Bush set out to eviscerate both FOIA and the Presidential Records Act. He has been determined to protect his father’s secrets when the first Bush was Vice President and then President – as well as his own. Call it Bush Omerta.”

Last week some sunlight pierced the Bush-imposed darkness:

The end may finally be in sight to the seven-year battle historians and archivists have waged to overturn President Bush’s Executive Order 13233 of November 2001 that restricted access to presidential records. On January 7, 2009, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 35, the “Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009,” by an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote of 359-58.

The bill offered by Edolphus Towns (D-NY) has now been sent to Joe Lieberman’s Homeland Security Committee in the Senate where it is expected to be welcomed and passed. Previous versions of this legislation were held up by Senate Republicans and threatened with a Bush veto. At this time, such opposition is not given much credence as the bill could likely muster 60 votes to achieve cloture and President-elect Barack Obama appears to be supportive. While not explicitly citing Bush’s Executive Order, Obama’s ethics agenda includes this statement:

Release Presidential Records: Obama and Biden will nullify attempts to make the timely release of presidential records more difficult.

The National Coalition for History, a non-profit educational project hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, has composed a detailed description of the bill’s provisions. Here is a summary:

  • Overturn Bush Executive Order 13233
  • Establish a Deadline for Review of Records
  • Limit the Authority of Former Presidents to Withhold Presidential Records
  • Require the President to Make Privilege Claims Personally
  • Eliminate Executive Privilege Claims for Vice Presidents
  • Deny Access to Anyone Convicted of a Crime Relating to the Archives

Passage of this bill would mark a profound step back from Bush’s attempts to conceal the crimes and corruption of his office. Joseph Wheelan, of George Mason University’s History News Network, expressed the very real risks of allowing the Bush Doctrine of Secrecy to endure:

“Executive Order 13233 portends a day when spin, the currency of politics, may become the province, too, of presidential history. One can envision a future when a presidential library’s watchdogs would allow only ‘safe’ historians to sift through the library’s holdings for material to cook up a bracingly whitewashed version of his subject’s actions. Objective historians, denied access to the panegyrist’s primary sources and all the juicy details, would be placed at a severe disadvantage. Which version do you think would get the seven-figure publishing advance and the lavish promotional campaign?”

Rep. Towns, and his colleagues in the House, have done a great service to the country with the passage of this bill. In a comment to the press, Towns said:

“President Bush’s executive order created an imbalanced and restrictive process. The Presidential Records Act preserves the important intent of the original post-Watergate law, which was to assure timely accessibility and preservation of official White House records for historical and, if necessary, legal purposes.”

The emphasis added at the end of that quote was mine, because of the hope it implies that justice can still be achieved, that the criminality of the outgoing administration does not go unpunished, and that their unconstitutional behavior is not set as a precedent.

I have long advocated that Executive Order 13233 be rescinded by the next Democratic president. Now Obama has the chance to do that with the added force of law behind it. I expect that he will gladly follow through, but first it has to get out of the senate and onto his desk. This would be good time to contact your senators and request that they support this bill.