Archives? What archives? President George W. Bush wanted to be able to keep his records secret indefinitely. Now they're part of the National Archive.
When the George W. Bush Presidential Center opens to the public next week, visitors won’t hear much about Bush’s attempts to withhold presidential records from the public.
The presidential library and museum are a part of the National Archives, an ironic turn of events for an administration that tried to claim unlimited “executive privilege” to deny the release of documents and that clashed with public historians.
President Bush signed an executive order in November 2001 that gave former presidents and vice presidents the right to veto requests for documents; under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, members of the public could request documents starting five years after a president left office, although certain things could be withheld for up to 12 years. Under Bush’s executive order, those requests could be denied indefinitely.
Less than a month after the order was signed, the National Security Archives and the American Historical Association, along with other scholars and public interest groups, filed a lawsuit challenging Bush’s actions, calling it an abuse of power and an attack on transparency.
“The Presidential Records Act of 1978 was meant to shift power over White House documents from former presidents to professional government archivists and ultimately to the public,” National Security Archive director Thomas Blanton said at the time the lawsuit was filed. “But the Bush order attempts to overturn the law, take the power back, and let presidents past and present delay public access indefinitely.”
A federal judge in 2007 overturned the provision that allowed the president to withhold information, calling the administration’s position, “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”
This was far from the only time that the Bush administration clashed with archivists; Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, tried to eliminate the position of the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archive. The director at the time, J. William Leonard, had clashed with the Office of the Vice President over its claims that it was exempt from federal rules about classified information.
Leonard said in 2007 that the dispute with Cheney’s office was a factor in his decision to leave government after 34 years.