[saymaListserv] Fwd: NYTimes.com Article: Writing History to Executive Order

Janet Minshall jhminshall at mindspring.com
Sat Nov 17 15:19:57 JEST 2001

Thought folks in SAYMA might be interested in
this article from NYTimes.com.  JM

Writing History to Executive Order
November 16, 2001


  WASHINGTON -- With a stroke of the pen on Nov. 1, President
Bush stabbed history in the back and blocked Americans'
right to know how presidents (and vice presidents) have
made decisions. Executive Order 13223 ended more than 30
years of increasing openness in government.

 From now on, scholars, journalists and any other citizens
will have to show a demonstrated, specific "need to know"
in requesting documents from the Reagan, Clinton and two
Bush presidencies - and all others to come. And if someone
asks to see records never made public during a presidency
but deposited in the National Archives by a former
president, the requester will now have to receive the
permission of both the former president and the current

My response was to send President Bush a couple of books on
recent presidencies, along with a note saying they might
become valuable artifacts because his order could prevent
writers from doing similar research without approval from
two presidents. I also attached a letter from his father to
me explaining how important it is to document presidential

Archival research is grinding work. It takes years of
perseverance to follow the paper trail documenting how the
nation goes to war or raises taxes, or how presidents
choose their staffs. But the search becomes worthwhile when
you see John F. Kennedy's initials on a memo talking of the
possibility of a Berlin wall weeks before the Communists
put it up, or when you find Richard Nixon asking Henry
Kissinger, in a note, "Is it possible we were wrong from
the start in Vietnam?"

There are rules upon rules about which presidential papers
become available and when - and some of them defy all
reason. For more than 25 years, an inscription by the Irish
writer Brendan Behan to President Kennedy was withheld from
researchers by the National Archives and Records
Administration, apparently because it was written on a copy
of Evergreen Review, a literary magazine considered racy in
those days. But the complicated rules have been changing in
the direction of more access since the Freedom of
Information Act became law on July 4, 1966.

 From 1981, when the Presidential Records Act went into
effect, until Mr. Bush issued his order, a citizen could
request to review some presidential papers five years after
the end of a presidency, or ask for all but the most
sensitive records after 12 years. Ronald Reagan's records
were the first to become available under the 12-year rule -
except that they did not become available, because the Bush
administration chose to review the policy for the past nine

That review resulted in the recent order. The White House
reassured me that you can still go to court if an
administration denies you access to archived information.
Right. If you have years and tens of thousands of dollars
to spare to take your case to the federal courts.

The White House argues that premature disclosure of
decision memos and the like could stifle dialogue among
presidential advisers. But this has been true for years,
and the republic has managed to survive. The
administration's second reason - to make the process more
"orderly" - is simply ludicrous. It is hard to see how
double presidential oversight will speed things up, unless
the idea is to just say no.

And I think that is the idea. There may be Reagan-era
records that could be embarrassing to some men and women
now back in power with the second Bush administration.

Perhaps even more pertinent, they may not want to spend
their retirements, 12 years after George W. Bush leaves
office, defending the wartime decisions they are making

Richard Reeves is author of "President Kennedy: Profile of
Power" and "President Nixon: Alone in the White House."


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