Barbara Weinstein: Let the Sunshine In ... Government Records and National Insecurities

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA. She expresses her gratitude to Ken Serbin and Kenneth Maxwell for their help with this column and adds that "any errors committed or opinions expressed are, of course, entirely my responsibility."]

What do George W. Bush, Angela Merkel, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have in common? They all head governments that have been embroiled in controversy over their reluctance or outright refusal to make government records available to scholars and/or the general public.

Most Perspectives readers are likely to be familiar with the recent controversies involving U.S. government documents. For the historical profession, one of the most troubling aspects of the Bush administration has been its efforts to limit access—whether for historians or "ordinary citizens"—to government records. These efforts have taken several forms, among them the reclassification of documents in the National Archives and Records Administration, including some already available in print and others that date back to the Korean War. Though this practice began in the late 1990s, it escalated under the Bush administration.1 Then there's the executive order allowing the president or the president's heirs to withhold papers from current and previous presidencies, beginning with the Reagan administration.2 The AHA, judging the latter to be a serious threat to the principle of free access, had joined a lawsuit to challenge this order. And now, in a series of dramatic and rapid developments, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has passed, by an overwhelming majority that included significant Republican support, the Presidential Records Amendments Act to nullify the executive order (for the latest news on this, see Lee White's essay in the Coalition Column).

The Bush administration has cited privacy considerations and always-dependable national security concerns to justify withholding documentation from the public. Critics of the administration, however, point to the ever-expanding definition of national security ("that mammoth fig leaf," to borrow a phrase from the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert) and insist that these policies more accurately reflect a concerted campaign to inflate presidential powers and reduce accountability. Whatever the justification or explanation, the end result is decreased access to government records and presidential papers, less public scrutiny, and an increase in government secrecy. All of this should be particularly disconcerting for historians since it represents a significant setback from the move toward greater openness initiated by the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966, and accelerated by a 1995 executive order signed by Bill Clinton that called for the automatic declassification of all government documents over 25 years old.3

Regrettably, the Bush administration is hardly alone in its retrogressive policies regarding declassification of government documents. Although dozens of nations have passed "sunshine laws" in recent years that facilitate access to public records, there are many instances where public officials have resisted greater openness and transparency. Take the case of the treasure trove of records from the Nazi era in the German town of Bad Arolsen. The massive documentation in the "International Tracing Service" Archive—an estimated 40 million pages on the fates of some 17 million individuals—bears bleak testimony to the Nazis' obsessive record-keeping. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, according to director Sara J. Bloomfield, "has for years been working to make these materials available to survivors and their families as well as to scholars."4 Nonetheless, the German government persistently refused to consider opening the archive, citing as justification the privacy provisions of German archival law (which mandates a hundred-year waiting period), even though the archive was created by an international agreement and therefore should not be subject to German law....
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