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Profile: Anna Nelson
Anna Nelson was a participant or observer in the following events:
The presidential papers of Ronald Reagan are scheduled to be released to the public (by Reagan’s own decision), but on his first day in office, Bush invokes a clause in the Presidential Records Act (PRA) to allow him 30 days to “review” the papers before releasing them. He will continue to “review” them every month until November 2001. Then Bush will issue an executive order giving him essentially carte blanche in deciding if and when any presidential papers will ever be released (see January 20-September 10, 2001 and November 1, 2001). The standard of the 1978 Presidential Records Act is to make presidential records and documents available after twelve years, if not voluntarily made available sooner, and with some obvious exceptions such as classified materials concerning national security. The first president to whom the new law applies is Ronald Reagan, and his vice-president, George H.W. Bush. The Reagan library has already released, or is readying for release, all but about 68,000 pages. The law provides that an incumbent president can double-check the release to ensure it falls within the law’s provision. According to the Act, the 68,000 pages are to be released now. Bush’s order will declare that not only can a former president assert executive privilege over his papers against the will of the incumbent president (a measure Reagan instituted just before he left office) but that a sitting president could also block the papers of a predecessor, even if that predecessor had approved their release. The implications of this change are breathtaking. “It’s pretty fishy,” says Anna Nelson, an American University history professor. “The precautions on ‘national security’ are extreme. These are not Iran-Contra papers.” Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, says, “This is a test of Congress to see how much the administration can get away with. It is not at all surprising the executive branch would want to operate in secret. The question is, How much will Congress accept?” [Nation, 2/7/2002; Dean, 2004, pp. 89-90]
President Bush signs an executive order delaying the public release of millions of government documents, citing the need to more thoroughly review them first. The government faced an April 17 deadline for declassifying millions of documents at least 25 years old. [Reuters, 3/26/2003] The order countermands a 1995 executive order by then-President Bill Clinton, who mandated that government documents over 25 years old be automatically declassified unless there was “significant doubt” as to whether their release would damage national security. [New York Times, 3/21/2003] The order also treats all material sent to American officials from foreign governments, no matter how routine, as subject to classification. It expands the ability of the CIA to shield documents from declassification, giving the director the right to unilaterally block any declassification of agency documents. And for the first time, it gives the vice president the power to classify information. The New York Times says, “Offering that power to Vice President Dick Cheney, who has shown indifference to the public’s right to know what is going on inside the executive branch, seems a particularly worrying development.” [New York Times, 3/21/2003; New York Times, 3/28/2003] Historian Anna Nelson says of the decision: “This is in context with the way this administration has done the whole bit on secrecy. They have left a skeletal process.” But Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists is less harsh in his assessment, saying, “One might have expected a more aggressive, pro-secrecy policy than this draft.” Tom Blanton of the private National Security Archive says the provision to classify information from foreign governments is far too broad: “Making all foreign government information presumptively classified means we’re lowering our openness standard to the lowest common denominator of our ostensible allies.” [New York Times, 3/21/2003]
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