Please, President-Elect Obama, Reverse Bush's Muzzling of Presidential Records


Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

On March 25, 2003, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13292 that delayed for years to come public access to millions of pages of documents that were scheduled for release. He claimed that “sensitive information” needed to be reviewed prior to the release -- though the federal government had many years to get ready for this deadline. The Bush order reversed President Bill Clinton's previous order (12958) that held a presumption in favor of disclosure. Weirdly, Bush awarded Vice President Dick Cheney the prerogative to block disclosures. And he also took the authoritarian step of empowering federal agencies to "reclassify" documents, for the most fanciful reasons, that had already been publicly released.

The leading lights of the history profession were aghast when Bush issued his Executive Order 13292 sealing virtually all "national security" related presidential records from public scrutiny. Archival documents are professional historians' raw materials and we must have transparency and open access to these primary sources not only to fulfill our obligations as active researchers and scholars but also to examine and interpret accurately the meaning of our nation's past.

The historian Sean Wilentz, in his superb new book, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974 - 2008, states in one of his footnotes that some of the key documents from the mid-1980s regarding President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy still remain classified. The Bush executive order has made it far more difficult for historians to gain access to crucial public documents that shed light on the record of presidential administrations in our recent past -- Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Bill Clinton -- which amounts to a most unflattering tone akin to that of governments, such as the old Soviet Union, that went to great lengths to cover up the behind-the-scenes business of government.

Bush's ill-conceived and undemocratic order undermines faith in American democracy by creating the strong impression the government has something to hide. If the United States is incapable of dealing with its own history and its own past actions honestly and openly, then how on earth can we preach to other nations about the superiority of "democracy" and "freedom"? This nation has been through a lot in the past thirty years and our citizens deserve the antiseptic that only the glare of the klieg lights and full disclosure can provide.

I hope, and I know that the vast majority of my colleagues agree with me, that President Barack Obama will move with haste to reverse this stifling and censorious executive order that only serves to spread suspicion and paranoia about our government's intentions and past actions. Only with a full accounting of our recent past, with trained historians leading the way, can we begin to bring our lofty rhetoric about "freedom" and "democracy" in alignment with our deeds. If there is a single lesson we must take away from the miserable years under the reign of George W. Bush it is this: We must practice what we preach. And openness and free access to our nation's public records, no matter how potentially embarrassing or shocking they may be, is essential for us to do so.

Over three decades ago, Idaho Senator Frank Church led an effort that shone a bright light on the secret misdeeds of the Central Intelligence Agency and other "national security" institutions. Not only did the Republic survive, it thrived because the Church Committee's revelations sparked Congress to enact badly needed reforms -- such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (abused by Bush) -- that helped steer the country away from damaging and counterproductive secret foreign policy actions that ran contrary to American values.

If the nation could learn from the shocking and damaging revelations of the Church Committee thirty years ago, I think the United States is resilient enough to withstand the effects of any revelation, no matter how "controversial," dating back to the 1980s and 1990s that a reopening and a quick declassifying of presidential documents will reveal today.

Granting open access to public documents to historians is not, and should not be, an "ideological" issue. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, should all agree that interpreting the meaning of our nation's past is essential for the United States to be a beacon to the rest of the world for the free flow of information. How can we criticize the Chinese or the Russians for censoring the Internet if we ourselves are blocking historians from accessing our own government's public records? The lesson is clear. As Robert F. Kennedy concluded in one of his most important speeches on the Vietnam War: "For today as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free."