Presidential records put under gag order
By Bob Kemper Washington Bureau Published November 2, 2001 (Chicago Tribune)
WASHINGTON -- President Bush signed an executive order Thursday giving him
unprecedented power to keep presidential papers secret, even those that
would have been released after the 12-year wait now required by law.
The order outraged advocates of declassifying records, who charged that it
was unlawful and would usher in a new era of government secrecy. They also
expressed concerns that the order would allow the president to block the
release of information involving Bush aides who served under the two
previous Republican administrations under Ronald Reagan and the elder
George Bush and now are helping to run the war on terrorism.
The order was signed as the administration moved on other fronts to get out
its message, opening offices in London and Pakistan to rebut reports from
the Taliban government, launching a public-relations campaign at home to
reassure Americans that the White House was prepared to handle the anthrax
threat, and scheduling diplomatic meetings to help Bush solidify support
for the U.S-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
Bush aides began drafting the executive order in May in response to the
scheduled release of some 68,000 pages of records from the Reagan
administration, as required by the 1978 Presidential Records Act. The
documents were to be released in January but the current administration put
off the release three times to review legal questions.
White House chief counsel Alberto Gonzales said the president was mainly
concerned about releasing papers that could compromise national security.
But Gonzales said he could not give an example in which national security
was jeopardized by the release of such papers, while historians insisted
safeguards existed against the release of such sensitive information.
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, said the order would provide an
"orderly process" to help archivists handle requests for the papers and
that "more information will be forthcoming" because of the action.
White House officials said Bush would not block documents just because they
might embarrass current aides, such as Elliot Abrams, who was indicted but
later pardoned for his involvement in the Iran-contra affair, and John
Negroponte, a controversial ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s. Abrams now
works at the National Security Council while Negroponte is ambassador to
the United Nations.
Other Reagan aides now in the current Bush administration include Secretary
of State Colin Powell, Budget Director Mitch Daniels Jr. and White House
Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
White House officials said the president also was not trying to prevent the
release of documents that reflect unfavorably on his father, who was
Reagan's vice president before winning the presidency in 1988.
"This is not about trying to protect embarrassing documents," Gonzales said.
Bush's order would allow him to block the release of any presidential
papers for a variety of reasons even if the former president wished to have
his documents made public.
The Presidential Records Act was in response to Watergate investigation and
former President Nixon's attempts to hold on to his papers and tape
recordings. It made presidential records the property of government, not
Law has 12-year cap
Under the 1978 law, presidential records are to be released after 12 years,
except for those withheld for national security or certain personal reasons
specified by law. A former president can claim executive privilege to
prevent the release of certain documents, and under Bush's order a sitting
president could not force their release.
"It will not be driven by politics or what looks good, it will be driven by
what is allowed under the Constitution," Gonzales said. "Look, we haven't
withheld a single document yet."
Historians speculated that the White House might be worried that the war on
terrorism may generate documents the Bush administration would rather not
see exposed down the road.
"I think their motive is to have control of their own records" after Bush
leaves office, said Anna Nelson, a historian at American University.
In the information war being waged overseas, the administration is setting
up the offices in London and Pakistan to get out its side of the story to
the international news media.
While the U.S. news media have been seen as largely sympathetic toward the
bombing in Afghanistan, an anti-American sentiment pervades foreign
coverage of the war in the Middle East and elsewhere, White House officials
That kind of coverage is fanning resentment among Muslims in other
countries whose leaders support America, such as Pakistan.
Making the rounds
As part of the effort to broaden the U.S. message abroad, Bush plans to
meet key foreign leaders next week in Washington as a prelude to his debut
speech before the United Nations' General Assembly on Nov. 10.
Bush will meet with the leaders of Britain, France, India, Brazil, Ireland
and Algeria. He is also scheduled to meet with Pakistan's president, Gen.
Pervez Musharraf, in New York during the UN meeting.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the president also will
launch a public-relations campaign at home to reassure the public that the
administration is in control of the mail-borne anthrax attacks, which have
spread in recent weeks and account for four deaths.
Bush will address via satellite a gathering of Central European nations in
Warsaw to talk about how they can aid the war on terrorism.
The president also will make a major address to the American public next
week, though the White House has not announced the date or the type of