No one ever accused conservative House Republican Dan Burton of mincing his words. This is, after all, the man who once famously called President Clinton a “scumbag.” But it’s one thing to throw rhetorical bombs at a President from the opposition party, and quite another to denounce your own party’s man as “dictatorial,” as Burton did to President Bush in December.
What outrages Burton is the Bush Administration’s overarching obsession with secrecy, with keeping information on a broad range of fronts out of the public view. That Burton has latched on to a key element of Bush’s MO has grown clearer with the unfolding of the Enron scandal. As more and more connections between members of the Bush Administration and Enron come to light, the press and the public may be forgiven for wondering, “What else are they hiding?”
The answer is “a lot”–the Bush team has already established a record on secrecy that makes Richard Nixon, just to take a random example from our presidential past, look like a boy scout.
Presidential Records Act
For starters, Bush is blocking the scheduled release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which mandates that all but the most highly sensitive documents are to be made public twelve years after a President leaves office. Under the PRA, Ronald Reagan’s papers were supposed to be released last year.
On January 20, 2001, the first batch (68,000 pages) of Reagan’s papers, mostly notes from meetings with advisers and internal White House memos, came up for routine release. It should have come off without a hitch–after all, presidential libraries have for years been releasing documents informally. But the new Bush Administration, fresh from its own Florida election controversy, took advantage of a PRA clause allowing a thirty-day presidential consultation, and thus began what turned into a grand stall. By last August, half a year had passed and still nothing had been released.
This raised suspicions. Since the law already exempted the most sensitive documents from disclosure, why did the Bush Administration have to review the rest for what it said were national security purposes? “It’s pretty fishy,” says Anna Nelson, an American University history professor who works with a number of scholarly and historical organizations on presidential papers access. “The precautions on ‘national security’ are extreme. These are not Iran/contra papers.”
Nelson surmises that many officials in the current Administration (including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) were authors of the twelve-year-old memos that are now being blocked: “They probably don’t remember what they said, and they are feeling iffy about it.” Meanwhile, George W. Bush is now deciding which papers of his father’s, former President George H.W. Bush, will be released, beginning on January 20, 2005.
After September 11 the Administration had virtual carte blanche to stall any and all document releases, and it did so boldly [see Bruce Shapiro, “Information Lockdown,” November 12, 2001]. In November Bush issued an executive order that declared that not only could 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.