Allen Weinstein, Thomas Blanton, Anna Nelson: Testify before congress about presidential records act 1978

Historians in the News

Legislation introduced in Congress Thursday would nullify an executive order signed by President Bush in 2001 limiting public access to presidential documents and greatly expanding the scope of executive privilege. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) announced the bipartisan bill during a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing that featured widespread condemnation of the president’s action, not only for its perceived effect of restricting research and freezing the flow of public information, but also for its role in building back-ups at the presidential libraries.

The Presidential Records Act Amendment of 2007 would largely restore the 1978 Presidential Records Act to its form under President Reagan, limit executive privilege to current and former presidents, and set firm deadlines for the review of documents before their public release. A similar bill never made it out of Congress back in 2004.

“History is not partisan,” said Waxman, a sponsor of the bill and chair of the House’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a subcommittee of which held the hearing on presidential records Thursday. “Historians and scholars need access to our nation’s history as it happened, not as a former president wished that it happened.”...

“Any presidential library created under this executive order will be a mockery,” said Steven L. Hensen, a past president of the Society of American Archivists and director of technical services for Duke University’s rare books library. “There are records, but they could be embargoed by Laura Bush or Jeb or whoever.”

In defense of the order, Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, testified that “there should be no question that, to date, Executive Order 13233 has not been used by former presidents or the incumbent president to prevent the opening of records to the public.”

More than 2.1 million pages of presidential records have been opened since November 2001, when the order went into effect, Weinstein said, and on “only one occasion” did the order restrict the release of documents. A total of 64 pages, 30 of which were duplicates, were kept closed at the Reagan Library, Weinstein said.

Thomas S. Blanton, for one, was not impressed.

Blanton, director of the non-governmental National Security Archive at George Washington University, said that from 1994 to 2001, the Reagan Library alone opened more than 5 million pages — more than twice the total number of pages opened by the entire presidential system since that time. And while the number of pages actively restricted may be low, Blanton says the lack of a time limit on a presidential review of documents before their release has contributed to a delay in response time that grew from 24 months in November 2001 to 78 months in February of this year....

“We need to think of presidential papers as raw material, like iron,” said Anna K. Nelson, a distinguished historian in residence at American University who represented the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Thursday. The research, done by a few, trickles down through books, articles and, ultimately, textbooks, to the many, she said — “from iron to steel.”

Read entire article at Elizabeth Redden at the website of Inside Higher Ed

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