Laray Polk: Bush’s Library ... The Kurds, Oil and Missing Records





[Laray Polk lives in Dallas, Texas. She is a multi-media artist and writer. Her articles have appeared on CounterPunch, Common Dreams, Znet, Znet Deutschland, Pacific Free Press, Baltimore Chronicle & Sentinel, and the Sri Lanka Guardian. ]

"How fitting is it that this storied political life that began here in Texas will write its final chapters right here in the good old Lone Star state and right here on this campus. Now the work begins to plan and build the site." --Don Evans, member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and chairman of the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation,  July 17, 2008 [1]

Texas oilman Ray Hunt suggested to President Bush in early 2001 that he consider his presidential library to be built in Dallas, Texas on the campus of Southern Methodist University.  That summer, Hunt and the president of SMU,  Gerald Turner,  met with Bush at his ranch in Crawford to discuss the library destination. 

Months after the Bush inauguration, Turner named Tom Barry,  SMU’s vice president of executive affairs, as the university’s “presidential library expert.” In the summer of 2001, SMU hired an architectural model maker to begin building a replica of the campus, complete with the envisioned Bush library. A year later, SMU formally announced its campaign to host the future library.

In 2005, SMU’s official invitation arrived from the library selection committee to compete with eight other schools. In December 2006, the committee made an announcement; SMU was being considered as the finalist. [2]

In a letter dated February 22, 2008, addressed to Turner,  Bush wrote, “I understand that the Southern Methodist University Board of Trustees has recommended its campus to house the George W. Bush  Presidential Library, Museum, and Institute...I am very pleased to approve proceeding consistent with the Trustees’ recommendation....Laura joins me in thanking you.” [3]

The letter does not disclose that Laura Bush, Ray Hunt and senior  vice president for corporate affairs and international relations at Hunt Oil Company,  Jeanne L.  Phillips,  are long-standing members of the SMU Board of Trustees. [4]

***

  In the first year of office,  having assumed the presidency under dubious circumstances,  George W. Bush met in private with the president of Hunt Oil and the president of SMU to begin plans for the construction of a monument to permanently house a legacy that had not yet been established. By November, Bush had signed an Executive Order (EO) that shifted the president’s and vice president’s public records, both former and incumbent, to a shady process of indefinite self-censorship. 

On November 1, 2001, President Bush signed EO 13233.  It would gut the the Presidential Records Act of 1978, extend a former president’s “constitutionally based privileges” to his heirs, and enable the suppression of public records indefinitely.  The EO ushered in broad authority for both presidents and vice presidents; its provisions overturn a previous order that require records to be systematically released 12 years after a president leaves office.  It also provides mechanisms for sharing agreements between former presidents (or their appointed representatives or heirs)  and the current president.  The same privileges extend to the office of the vice president.

 EO 13233 requires that the US Archivist gain agreement for a record’s release from both the former and current president.  Both are granted unlimited time for review.  A former president’s decision in declining the release of a record holds more sway than the judgement of the sitting president.  If the position is reversed, that is,  the president in office makes a privilege claim, then the record in question will remain secret even if the former president or family wishes it released. [5]

For the Reagan administration, whose interval of 12 years had arrived,  the EO presented a reprieve for both the former president and his vice president,  George H. Bush. The sharing agreement of the release of documents based on “extended security concerns” has served other purposes.  Suppression of records from Reagan’s presidency made President Bush’s nomination of John Negroponte as deputy secretary of state plausible.

On March 14, 2007, a bill to rescind the EO, HR 1255: Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007, passed the House of Representatives by a large majority of 333-93.   The bill reached the floor of the Senate on several occasions but was stalled each time; twice by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and once by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY).   

While the EO works on the premise of suppressing that which is known to exist,  there is another dimension of censorship is that taking place:  Deletion of electronic data.   The White House is legally required to  preserve e-mails considered presidential and as belonging to the federal record. This includes the discussion of highly sensitive policy matters by way of e-mail. The archiving of records by the White House serves two major functions:  as a historical account of events and as documentation in the instance of future legal quandaries.

In January 2008, an Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), announced that 473 days of White House e-mail communications were missing.  Essentially, days in the White House that were marked by communication “blackouts.” 

Based on a study assembled by the committee, Waxman reported that no e-mails for Bush’s executive office had been archived on 12 separate days between December 2003 and February 2004;  and no e-mails for Vice President Cheney’s executive office had been archived on 16 occasions between September 2003 to May 2005.  According to the study, other areas of the White House had even higher numbers of days  of no e-mail messages.  These include the Council on Environmental Quality, Council of Economic Advisors, Office of Management and Budget, and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. [6] 

The issue of missing White House records remains the subject of several ongoing legal disputes.  In court on May 2008, in a lawsuit filed by the National Security Archive,  the White House admitted that it has lost e-mail backups from the initial days of the Iraq war.  The loss of records  amounts to three months worth of e-mail exchanges between March to September 2003. Spokespersons for the Bush administration testified that a system upgrade was mostly likely to blame;  data was lost when Bush aides dismantled an automatic e-mail archive program used by President Bill Clinton.  The missing e-mails also proved challenging for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in his investigation of the exposed identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. [7]

In April 2007, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee gave statements to congressional staff members that the RNC “is missing at least four years’ worth of e-mail from White House senior advisor Karl Rove” and that the it had taken  “action to prevent Rove--and Rove alone among the two dozen or so White Officials with RNC accounts--from deleting his e-mails from the RNC server.”  During the same week, White House administration officials publicly admitted that e-mails, including matters concerning the firing of U.S. attorneys, may have been lost because they had been sent through political messaging accounts.  There have been a total of 50 such e-mail accounts during the Bush administration. [8]

Against this backdrop of emerging facts concerning secrecy, obfuscation, deletion and lawsuits,  SMU officials continue to extoll the merits of hosting the future George W. Bush Presidential Library.  In July 2008, Brad Cheves, SMU’s vice president of development and external affairs, went on record to say that the Bush library “...has the potential to bring a storehouse of history to a university campus and to the city of Dallas." [9]

The “storehouse of history,” in terms of obligatory White House records,  is most likely nonexistent as a continuous historical account.    And even if it were partially extant,  the records would most likely be suppressed by Bush and Cheney for as long as EO 13233 provides protection.  It is more probable, that the library in the beginning will not be a library at all, but, rather, a contrived narrative intended for ten of thousands of paying visitors.

The firm chosen to create the “defining moments of President Bush’s tenure,” PRD Group,  is “...fashioning a narrative that meets Mr. Bush’s approval.”  Benjamin Hufbauer, author of Presidential Temples:  How Memorial and Libraries Shape Public Memory, has commented that he has reservations when a president has a direct hand in constructing the message, “You basically have a shrine to the president...an extended campaign commercial.” [10]

 Karl Rove is also playing an advisory role in the planning at SMU. Mark Langdale,  the president of the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, has stated that,  "Karl's pretty busy doing a lot of things in his private life right now, but he's a critical resource about what happened in the administration, and he has a lot of good ideas about programming and positioning....I would appreciate his continued advice on how we can build a better library institution.” [11]
 
As part of the deal for the presidential library, SMU will also play host to a policy institute.  As Turner publicly reminded dissenting faculty and staff,  “the institute and library come as a package deal.” [12] Though the institute will have its own governing body separate from the university, visiting fellows will have the opportunity to serve in a professorial capacity within the established SMU curricula. [13]

One must ask at this juncture whether or not SMU trustees and administrators are concerned that the bulk of evidence gathered by concerned citizens and legal groups, as well as the the unlawful lack of federal records, is a strong indicator that they are enablers of a controlled narrative whose end is nowhere in sight?  What are the consequences of this continued ruse of respectability?  Can anyone emerge unscathed from this new world order that conspires from both within and without?

***

“I knew nothing about the [Hunt Oil Co.] deal. I need to know exactly how it happened. To the extent that it does undermine the ability for the government to come up with an oil revenue-sharing plan that unifies the country, obviously I'm – if it undermines that, I'm concerned." --President George W. Bush, White House news conference, September 20, 2007 [14]

On September 8, 2007, Ray Hunt signed a contract for a 800-square-kilometer exploration block in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  Hunt Oil Company directly negotiating the deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  Hunt would later provide e-mails, when investigated by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Waxman, that indicated that he had been given the green light by State Department officials prior to negotiations. Hunt also supplied letters from July and August of 2007 addressed to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), of which he is a member, as proof of the board’s awareness of his future business pursuits.

On July 3, 2008, the Congressional oversight committee released its report, concluding that officials in the Bush administration had knowledge of Hunt Oil Company’s intentions to seek an independent contract with the KRG.  The committee’s collection of e-mail messages, responses to a questionnaire and testimonies, reveal a host of conflicting accounts within the State Department.

One e-mail message released by the committee, sent by a State Department official in Washington to a colleague, read:  “Many thanks for the heads up; getting an American company to sign a deal with the K.R.G. will make big news back here. Please keep us posted.”  In an e-mail response to questions asked by the committee,   John Fleming,  an Iraq press officer in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, wrote: “All companies, including Hunt Oil, which have spoken with the United States government about investing in Iraq’s oil sector, have and will continue to be given the same advice...that they incur significant political and legal risk by signing any contracts with any party before a national [oil] law is passed by the Iraqi Parliament.”

Another State Department official, who asked not to be named, went on record to say that a State Department official in Erbil, the capital city of the KRG, had met with Hunt Oil directly.  According to the testimony given, the local official had “tried to dissuade Hunt officials from making the deal.”   There is no written account from that meeting; Hunt Oil denies they had ever received discouragement in Erbil. [15]

Hunt employees have also produced their own contradictions.  According to an e-mail provided to the committee by David McDonald, an executive for Hunt Oil, dated September 28, 2007:  “I specifically asked if the U.S.G. had a policy toward companies entering contracts with the K.R.G....There was no communication to me or in my presence made by the nine State Department officials with whom I met prior to 8 September that Hunt should not pursue our course of action leading to a contract.  In fact, there was ample opportunity to do so, but it did not happen.” [16]  In a news story from September 21, 2007,  Hunt spokesperson,  Jeanne L. Phillips, stated:  "We're a privately held company. We do not make it a practice to discuss our business dealings with anyone except the involved parties, and in this case the U.S. government is not an involved party.” [17]

Following Phillips’ statement, in a news story appearing almost a month later,  Ray Hunt was reported saying that “... he has not talked about it [Hunt-KRG contract] with Mr. Bush or anyone else in the U.S. government, either before it was signed Sept. 8 or since.” [18]

  It is difficult to discern whether any of the accounts and accompanying documentation provided to the Oversight Committee have any legitimate content relevant to events as they occurred in real time.   It does, however, provide a keyhole into the muddied and muddled affairs of the Bush administration.  It is most likely that some State Officials knew about the deal and approved, it is also possible that PIAB members knew of Hunt’s plans and that President Bush did not. It is also possible that Hunt abused his position on PIAB to gain access to intelligence for personal use.  One such opportunity relevant to an oilman would be access to multi-spectral, high-resolution US reconnaissance satellite photographs.  Such data would have told him with great accuracy which 800-square-kilometer tract to negotiate. [19]

On September 29, 2008, a little over than a year later after the Hunt contract had been finalized, President Bush signed an EO directly related to PIAB and the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB). One news report characterized the EO as having “downsized the [Intelligent Oversight] board's mandate,” and by doing so, severely weakened “espionage oversight.” [20]

It is plausible that the espionage oversight sought by Bush had to do with PIAB itself. The EO established the IOB as a committee comprised of no more than five members of PIAB, designated by the president.  The primary focus of the IOB is to “inform the President of intelligence activities that the IOB believes...may be unlawful or contrary to Executive Order or presidential directive.” [21] The Hunt deal was viewed by many, including the Oversight Committee, as deceptive primarily because it undercut the “oil revenue-sharing plan.”  Hunt’s actions can easily be interpreted as contrary to both a Bush directive and prevailing US policy.  Others argue, as  the Iraqi oil field workers do, that provisions of the national oil law--which the “oil revenue-sharing plan” is just one--are unjust and should not be a pursued by the US nor Iraq as written. [22] 

There is another overarching angle worth exploring.  The independently pursued Hunt-KRG contract may have had full approval from the White House.  It could have been part of an accepted strategy in an effort to hasten the signing of the national oil law by the central government in Baghdad before the end of Bush’s term. 

According to Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Washington representative of the KRG,  "What's undermining the government is the lack of progress on the [national] oil law...This deal didn't undermine the oil law per se. It will give it a good kick up the backside to get the process moving forward." [23]  

Talabani’s statements were made in September 2007.  Since then,  the process has largely remained in upheaval.  On October 26, 2008,  the Iraqi government submitted the national oil law (i.e. Draft Iraq Hydrocarbon Law) to parliament's Oil and Gas Committee.  It failed approval and remains in committee, unsigned and vigourously disputed. [24]

It may never be precisely known how the Hunt-KRG deal came about but it is obvious what Hunt and his company could potentially gain from it.  For the Kurds, the deal has in effect secured them oil production-sharing rights whereas the other regions of Iraq have no such security. The deal may also act as a means to an end in reclaiming Kurdish land confiscated during Saddam Hussein’s rule.  The 800-square-kilometer exploration block includes contested territory in Ninawa province.  For all regions of Iraq, the deal has caused sufficient controversy as to have kept the negotiation of its natural resources open to debate.

The citizens of the world are due a full accounting.  A variety of minds is needed to make a  “storehouse of history”  yield a valid account of the last eight years.  If such a storehouse where to exist. 

What is known to exist as permanent records are EOs, proposed hydrocarbon laws, proclamations, and acts written during Bush’s tenure. The ramifications and ill-effects of these documents and others like them, will persist with or without a library to officially house them.  The Bush legacy, as it is presently known by way of public documents generated by his administration, will continue on until citizens and those actively representing them, demand revision and reversal.

 This is not to rule out that the obvious offerings afforded to the paying public at the future George W. Bush Presidential Library will not be of interest.  The history worth telling will include the egregious acts of deception and will be defined, like Nixon's presidency, by what is missing and known to have been destroyed.  The library and policy institute  even in the planning stages,  are monuments in motion, opportunities for exploring how real power operates. How long can this ruse of respectability continue?  And what can be gained by allowing it extended privilege?  Much work is needed as a new administration assumes office.

Endnotes

1. Paul Meyer, ‘It’s official: Bush library coming to SMU’, Dallas Morning News, July 17, 2008.

2. Derek Kravitz, ‘SMU aimed early for Bush library: Depositions show birth of SMU’s secret, savvy push in ‘01’, Dallas Morning News, August 17, 2007.

3. ‘SMU Chosen As Site of Bush Presidential Library’, under ‘White House Letter to SMU’,  document: white-house-letter-to-smu.pdf, SMU News, http://smu.edu/newsinfo/announcements/ (accessed October 29, 2008).

4. SMU Board of Trustees, under ‘Board Members’, http://smu.edu/
trustees/ (accessed October 29, 2008).

5. Presidential Records Act Executive Order: Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Acts Executive Order, http:// www.whitehouse.
gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011101-12.html (accessed October 29, 2008).

6. Dan Eggen and Elizabeth Williamson, ‘White House Study Found 473 Days of E-Mail Gone’, Washington Post, January 18, 2008.

7. Elana Schor, ‘White House tells court of missing emails from beginning of Iraq war’, Guardian, May 7, 2008.

8. Michael Abramowitz, ‘Rove E-Mail Sought by Congress May Be Missing:  RNC Took Away His Access to Delete Files in 2005’, Washington Post, April 13, 2007.

9. Paul Meyer, ‘SMU agrees to terms with Bush library planners, court deposition shows’, Dallas Morning News, February 21, 2008.

10. Brendan McKenna, ‘PRD Group to shape legacy at George W. Bush presidential library’, Dallas Morning News, March 14, 2008.

11. Paul Meyer, ‘Rove advising on Bush library’, Dallas Morning News, February 26, 2008.

12. Holly K. Hacker and Paul Meyer, ‘SMU still waits to seal the deal on Bush library: School says negotiation process, not lawsuit over land, behind delay’, Dallas Morning News, October 22, 2007.

13. Holly K. Hacker, ‘SMU professors remain wary of partisan policy institute’, Dallas Morning News, February 26, 2008.

14. Jim Landers, ‘Bush fears Hunt Oil deal will hurt Iraq: Dallas firm defends keeping White House out of Kurdish plan’, Dallas Morning News, September 21, 2007.

15. James Glanz, Richard A. Oppel Jr., Andrew E. Kramer, and Mudhafer al-Husaini, ‘Panel Questions State Dept. Role in Iraq Oil Deal’, New York Times, July 3, 2008; and Jim Landers, ‘U.S. didn’t balk at Hunt Oil’s Plans until after deal, documents show’, Dallas Morning News, July 16, 2008.

16. See n. 15 (Glanz).

17. See n. 14.

18. Jim Landers, ‘Hunt Oil deal could help shape Kurds’ future: Drilling contract with Kurds could lead to regional autonomy-or aggravate sectarian strife’, Dallas Morning News, October 24, 2007.

19. President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Intelligence Oversight  Board, http://www.whitehouse.gov/piab/ (accessed Nov. 3, 2008).

20. Charlie Savage, ‘President weakens espionage oversight: Board created by Ford loses most of its power’, Boston Globe, March 14, 2008.
21. Executive Order: President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Intelligence Oversight Board, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/
releases/2008/02/20080229-5.html (accessed October 29, 2008).

22. David Moberg, ‘Iraqi Unions Fight the New Oil Law’, In These Times, http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3261/ (accessed November 3, 2008); see also Antonia Juhasz, ‘Whose Oil Is It, Anyway?’, New York Times, March 13, 2007.

23. See n. 14.

24. Ahmed Rasheed, ‘Iraqi parliament committee fails to back oil law’, Reuters, October 26, 2008.


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More Comments:


Edmond Dantes - 11/13/2008

I see no reason to complain about President Bush's actions. Those gaps in the record are necessary for the livelyhood of conspiracy theorists - many of whom find sanctuary among academic departments. Think of the millions made by proponents of grassy knolls and magic bullets. If we possessed the entire record many of these unskilled workers would have to find actual jobs.


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2008

See
http://www.citizensforethics.org/node/35467
for information on the Nov. 10, 2008 District Court ruling


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2008

Forgot to add a tag line that I am not at work today, just in case anyone is wondering what computer I used to post this. (Longtime HNN readers know why I always take care to explain that.)


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2008

(1) Prediction: no historian other than I will comment on this essay. For reasons that are not clear, HNN's readers have demonstrated nearly universal indifference to these types of issues in the past. Previous articles about access to records have drawn comments mostly from present and former archivists, not historians.

(2) Comment: Just to clarify, E.O. 13233 applies to material that has been judged releasable by government officials (archivists at the National Archives-administered Presidential Libraries and, in the case of material once classified and declassified by the National Archives, by the equity holding departments or agencies). Once the archivists mark something as releasable, the former President and the sitting President have the right to say, "no, I'm claiming privilege, don't release it after all, despite the fact that it meets privacy, security and other thresholds for disclosure."

E.O. 13233 has not been fully tested in court. In one case involving the order, the judge mostly punted. The case filed this fall which deals with Vice President Cheney's records centers on the PRA more so than E.O. 13233. (See
http://www.citizensforethics.org/node/35254 )

Previous court decisions have looked at the privilege issue through the lens of executive chains of command and the erosion of confidentiality over time. See
http://www.citizen.org/litigation/briefs/FOIAGovtSec/articles.cfm?ID=7116
for which the money quote is:

"The Bush Order also runs afoul of Article II by delegating to persons outside the Executive Branch, and indeed outside the government, the power to give binding directions to the Archivist, a duly appointed officer of the United States. Under the Order, once a former President or Vice President or a representative appointed by him or his family makes a claim of privilege, the archivist is compelled to refrain from releasing records to the public even in the face of the incumbent President's opposition to that claim. Only with the 'authorization' of the former officeholder or his representative may the Archivist take the actions otherwise required by the PRA. Thus, the Bush Order places authority to give a binding directive to the Archivist in the hands of private citizens holding no government position. The D.C. Circuit found just such a delegation to a former President improper in Public Citizen v. Burke:

If, whenever [the former President] asserts executive privilege, the Archivist in effect loses jurisdiction over his responsibilities to [e]ffect disclosure, the former President has gained power to withdraw from the Archivist some indefinite portion of the responsibilities that Congress delegated to him." (843 F.2d at 1480)

Finally, as regards records statutes, readers need to go beyond the superficial and to consider cause and effect, something which historians have been unwilling to do, at least here on HNN.

Maarja Krusten
Historian and former National Archives Nixon tapes archivist