The President's Papers
HISTORIANS WON a small victory last week in their quest to lift the heavy cloak of privilege from papers generated by the president and his White House staff. A federal judge ruled that the National Archives should have the final say on when those papers are publicly released. But that action takes care of only part of the problem. Congress has before it a law that would make as many of those documents available as possible. The only obstacle is Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).
Since 1978, a president has been allowed to hold back certain records from public view for 12 years after leaving the White House. In addition, a 1989 executive order from President Ronald Reagan lets former occupants of the Oval Office ask the sitting president to withhold certain records. If the request is refused, the former president can go to court to stop their release. Then came President Bush's 2001 executive order, which compelled presidents to honor the requests of their predecessors. And in an unprecedented bit of overreaching, Mr. Bush extended the right of executive privilege to relatives of the president and the vice president. Archivists can go to court to try to get the records released, but even if their lawsuits are successful, current and former presidents could delay the release of records indefinitely.
Because that "effectively eliminates" the discretion of the National Archives, which by law has the power to release presidential documents, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in an Oct. 1 ruling, invalidated the indefinite presidential review of privileged records. Left in place, though, was the broad cloak of privilege for the president's relatives and for the vice president that Mr. Bush's executive order imposed. The Presidential Records Act Amendment of 2007, sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), would take care of that by undoing the order and giving current and former presidents no more than 40 days to review privileged documents before they are released.
But Mr. Bunning is blocking the bill. He didn't return our call, but he was quoted in the Dallas Morning News last month as saying, "The president ought to have the right to withhold any records he chooses" and that former presidents should have "a reasonable amount of time" to release their records. Mr. Bunning's hold and his rationale are unacceptable. Presidential records belong to history because they help provide insight into the decisions made by a president and his administration. More important, because they are the byproducts of work done on behalf of the nation, those records belong to the people of the United States.