On a 'need to know' basis

January 4, 2002

US historians are preparing to fight a directive, sneaked through by George W. Bush in early November, that closes the archives on certain presidential papers. Huw Richards reports

President George W. Bush may enjoy stratospheric electoral ratings after nearly a year in office, but he is running short of admirers among historians and other academics who study the presidency.

Not because of the bombing of Afghanistan, tax cuts or his inimitable way with the English language, but because of an executive order slipped out quietly under cover of the "war against terrorism". Executive Order 13223, issued by the president on November 1, changes the rules on the release of presidential papers. Previously, documents become available, under the United States Freedom of Information Act and the 1978 Presidential Records Act, 12 years after a president left office. There were exceptions for national security. Former presidents have always been able to claim privilege for some papers, but they had to set out their reasons and could be overruled by the National Archivist.

Executive Order 13223 shifts the balance of proof, requiring researchers to show a "demonstrated, specific need" and to obtain the consent of the former president - or his descendants - and the current president to obtain documents.

Presidential historian Richard Reeves, writing in the New York Times, said the order "stabbed history in the back" and "ended more than 30 years of increasing openness in government".

On November 28, a federal lawsuit challenging the directive was filed in Washington DC's district court. It is backed by groups such as the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.

More even than their salaries, British academics have been wont to envy their American counterparts' access to government information.

Mike Turner, of Paisley University, speaks for many. "For many years now, I have contrasted the 'Dark Ages', closed doors and secretive practices of Whitehall with the refreshing openness and access afforded scholars in the US in tracking down archival materials of relatively recent administrations."

But as British government papers for 1971 are released by the Public Record Office, some researchers feel that they've never had it so good. Britain's 30-year rule lives on, but obsessive secrecy appears to be receding. Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary's, London, says:

"More than 100,000 previously classified files have been released under the Waldegrave Initiative, some of a sensitivity that I never expected to see released."

By contrast Hugh Graham, professor of history at Vanderbilt University and a party to the federal lawsuit, says of the US situation: "I cannot remember anything this serious."

Hennessy argues that Britain has some advantages, such as the efficiency of the Public Record Office and the comprehensiveness of its annual 30-year rule. Freedom of Information releases in the US are more piecemeal. No Americanist, however, is offering to swap systems. But, when William Rogers Louis, president of the American Historical Association, suggested at a recent conference that the British system might have some virtues, he was not laughed off stage.

News of the directive spread slowly to Britain. But British Americanists share the horror of their US counterparts. Turner described the directive as an "appalling development, staining the American reputation for openness and freedom of information". Jon Roper, head of American studies at Swansea University, says: "It will make research much more difficult."

Reeves was unimpressed by White House assurances that scholars could challenge the withholding of documents in the courts. "Right. If you have years and tens of thousands of dollars to spare to take your case to the courts."

Pointing out that archive work is a long grind, he writes: "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?'" Graham says: "The core of the archives is the record of traffic between a president and his advisers."

Bruce Craig, director of the Washington DC-based National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, adds: "You could not write the true history of Watergate without the exchanges between Nixon and his attorney-general or of the Cuban missile crisis without knowing what Kennedy and his advisers were saying to each other. All you could write was something rather bland and stilted, based on what the president wanted or was prepared to have released."

Graham notes that access to presidential papers has been a significant issue since Watergate, with scholars and journalists pressing for openness while government pursues its natural preference for secrecy. "That is not specific to this president," he says.

But he doubts that Al Gore would have sought such sweeping powers. The timing of the directive, with the papers from Ronald Reagan's presidency - in which George Bush's father was vice-president and several members of the current administration had prominent roles - due for release, has inevitably raised suspicion about the president's motives. Michael Foley, professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University, points out:

"There are unanswered questions about the Reagan presidency, such as the extent of vice-president Bush's involvement in and knowledge of Iran-Contra." Roper says: "It inevitably raises suspicions that there is something to hide."

Gary McDowell, director of the Institute of US Studies at London University, is unconvinced, arguing that Bush and his associates are "too smart to believe that they can prevent things coming out".

The legal case will be heard in the new year, forcing the White House into a formal justification of its actions. Craig expects the entire process to take up to a year; Foley suspects it could be longer and could end up in the Supreme Court. "It will turn on the question of executive privilege, which can be almost as sweeping as the royal prerogative is in Britain. The White House will invariably try to invoke national security."

Meanwhile, documents from the Reagan era will remain under wraps. But Graham and his allies are confident about the final outcome - Craig saying that even White House attorneys question the watertightness of the directive. Foley, who has a long record of comparing the US and British systems, adds: "The British system is hierarchical, retaining documents until they are 'safe' and cannot possibly change the political landscape." In contrast, the US system is fuelled by "constant debate". "There is something healthy about tensions of this sort, and the way a presidential decision like this will be challenged in the courts."

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