Historians Fight Bush-Cheney to Stop Destruction of Presidential Records

Historians in the News

Thirty-two of the nation’s leading historians have sent letters to congressional leaders calling on them to strengthen the Presidential Records Act (PRA). [Text & signers posted below. Click READ MORE.] The effort, led by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and joined by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Coalition for History, notes that while the PRA requires the administration to preserve presidential records, “it fails to provide an effective means of enforcing compliance with that requirement.” (View the letters here and here.)

This effort has taken on increased urgency as the Bush administration prepares to leave office and may be ready to expunge the record on its tenure. Bush has already repeatedly manipulated and rewritten open government laws in order to cover up his wrongdoings:

– The White House is “missing as many as 225 days of e-mail dating back to 2003 and there is little if any likelihood a recovery effort will be completed by the time the Bush administration leaves office.”

– In 2001, President Bush issued an executive order “allowing former presidents to review executive documents before they can be released.” Last year, however, a U.S. District Judge invalidated the order, ruling that former presidents would be able to “indefinitely” keep their documents secret.

– Bush plans to solicit contributions from foreign donors for his $200 million presidential library, but plans on keeping their identities secret.

CAPAF Senior Fellow Mark Agrast told ThinkProgress that although the “prospects for legislative action during the remainder of the 110th Congress are not promising, we felt it was important to lay down a marker for the next Congress and the incoming administration before this Congress adjourns.”

CREW and several historian organizations are also filing a separate lawsuit today, “asking a federal judge to declare that Cheney’s records are covered by the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and cannot be destroyed, taken or withheld without proper review.”

Related Links

  • Mark Agrast: Congress Must Act to Preserve Presidential Records for Future Generations
  • September 5, 2008

    The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
    Speaker of the House
    U.S. House of Representatives
    H-232 The Capitol
    Washington, D.C. 20515

    The Honorable John A. Boehner
    Republican Leader
    U.S. House of Representatives
    H-204 The Capitol
    Washington, D.C. 20515

    Dear Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner:

    Last year, the National Archives located a July 7, 1863 letter written by President Abraham Lincoln concerning the Civil War, which was described by the Archives as a “significant find.” The discovery of this short note, written over 150 years ago, occasioned extraordinary interest and excitement.

    Modern presidents have generated millions upon millions of documents that are critical to an understanding of our nation’s past. Yet unless Congress takes action to safeguard these materials, many of them may be lost to future generations.

    In 1978, Congress reacted to the Watergate scandal by enacting the Presidential Records Act. The PRA requires the president to “take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as Presidential records.”

    Unfortunately, while the PRA requires the preservation of presidential records, it fails to provide an effective means of enforcing compliance with that requirement. The consequences of that failure have only recently become clear, with the revelation that millions of White House email messages generated between October 2003 and March 2005 are missing. Little to no effort has been made to recover the missing messages, and many, if not all, may now be permanently lost. That loss will leave an enormous gap in the documentary record of the period, compromising the ability of future historians to understand how and why the Bush administration made critical policy decisions, including the decision to go to war in Iraq.

    As historians, we believe it is vital that the PRA be strengthened to ensure that such a devastating loss will never again take place. Effective enforcement measures, including appropriate penalties for noncompliance, are essential to establishing and maintaining sound record keeping practices. In addition, there must be greater oversight of compliance with the PRA, including such measures as annual reviews and inspections by the Archivist. Had such inspections been the norm, the fact that millions of records were missing would have been discovered much earlier and all or most of them might have been recovered.

    New technologies have made possible the capture and retention of an enormous volume of executive branch communications. A reinvigorated Presidential Records Act is needed to ensure that this information is preserved and made available for historical study—so that future generations can one day greet the discovery of an email from President Bush with the same excitement that attended the Lincoln letter.


    Allida M. Black
    George Washington University

    David W. Blight
    Yale University

    Alan Brinkley
    Columbia University

    Douglas G. Brinkley
    Rice University

    Robert A. Caro
    New York, NY

    Clayborne Carson
    Stanford University

    Lizabeth Cohen
    Harvard University

    Robert Dallek
    Washington, DC

    Joseph J. Ellis
    Mount Holyoke College

    Eric Foner
    Columbia University

    Lee W. Formwalt
    Executive Director
    Organization of American Historians

    Gary Gerstle
    Vanderbilt University

    David A. Hollinger
    University of California at Berkeley

    Arnita A. Jones
    Executive Director
    American Historical Association

    Stanley N. Katz
    Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

    Michael Kazin
    Georgetown University

    David M. Kennedy
    Stanford University

    Linda K. Kerber
    University of Iowa

    Stanley I. Kutler
    University of Wisconsin

    David Levering Lewis
    New York University

    David McCullough
    West Tisbury, Massachusetts

    James M. McPherson
    Princeton University

    William Lee Miller
    University of Virginia

    Anna Kasten Nelson
    American University

    Jack N. Rakove
    Stanford University

    Bruce J. Schulman
    Boston University

    Martin J. Sherwin
    George Mason University

    Gabrielle Spiegel
    Johns Hopkins University
    President, American Historical Association

    Lee White
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for History

    Sean Wilentz
    Princeton University

    Roger Wilkins
    George Mason University

    Garry Wills
    Northwestern University

    Read entire article at ThinkProgress

    comments powered by Disqus