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Profile: Society of American Archivists (SAA)
Society of American Archivists (SAA) was a participant or observer in the following events:
George W. Bush signs Executive Order 13233 which limits public access to papers of all presidents since 1980. A 1978 law provided for the release of presidential papers 12 years after the president leaves office, so Ronald Reagan’s papers would have been released next year. Reagan issued an order in 1989 that called for disclosure of most of his official papers 12 years after he left office but under the new executive order the papers can be kept secret even if the president in question wants them released. President Bush’s father was vice president during the Reagan administration. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11/8/2001] The Guardian notes that now Bush’s “personal papers detailing the decision-making process in the current war on terrorism could remain secret in perpetuity.” [Guardian, 11/2/2001] In March 2001, Bush signed a temporary order delaying the release of these papers for 90 days, and then signed for another 90 day delay before signing this order making the change permanent (see January 20, 2001). [New York Times, 1/3/2003]
'Executive Fiat' - Bush’s executive order radically reforms the PRA and unilaterally imposes limitations never contemplated by Congress. Bush is, according to former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, “in essence… repealing an act of Congress and imposing a new law by executive fiat.” If not overturned by Congress or lawsuits, the executive order mandates the following, according to Dean:
Former presidents can keep their papers sealed indefinitely.
Vice presidents have the power to invoke executive privilege, an authority limited to the president since 1969.
The burden shifts from a presumption to release presidential documents unless good cause exists to keep them sealed, to the opposite, where an applicant must show good cause why a set of documents should be unsealed.
Any request to release a former president’s papers must be approved by both the former president and the current incumbent. Either one’s objection keeps the papers sealed.
“Representatives of former presidents” may invoke executive privilege after a former president’s death. Dean will write, “Although there is no constitutional basis whatsoever for this, under Bush’s order such a right can be passed from generation to generation, to friends, anyone.”
Tom Connors of the Society of American Archivists will say, “What seems to be coming out of the [Bush-Cheney] administration is the idea that public information is a dangerous thing.” Historian Hugh Davis Graham, who will, before his death, take part in a lawsuit to overturn the order, will observe, “George W. Bush has a fetish for secrecy. And unless this executive order is overturned, it will be a victory for secrecy in government—a victory so total that it would make [former president Richard] Nixon jealous in his grave.” Dean will add, “Bush and Cheney assumed office planning to take total and absolute control of executive branch information. The truth will be what they say it is. They will decide what the public should know and when, if ever.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 89-92]
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