Government Secrets


Back in September, I blogged about a hold being put on a bill that would undo the damage done when President Bush issued an Executive Order allowing presidential records to remain secret indefinitely. The bill, Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007, passed the House by a vote of 333 to 93. A bipartisan group of Senators cosponsored the bill which Senator Lieberman swiftly ushered through The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in June of 2007. Its momentum stalled when a Senator put a secret hold on the bill so it could not be voted on by Unanimous Consent in the Senate.

Fast forward to late September 2007. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was signed into law, and it included a provision banning secret holds. (We like to pat ourselves on the back for being part of the group pressuring the Senate to keep that provision in the bill.) Senator Lieberman tried once again to move the Presidential Records Act Amendments bill by unanimous consent. Secret holds no longer being an option, if a Senator wanted to block the bill he would have to attach his name to a hold. Senator Bunning embraced the task of blocking common sense transparency legislation and placed a hold on the bill.

Perhaps hoping that his colleagues’ new year’s resolutions included promises not to block transparency legislation, Senator Lieberman recently tried to bring up the bill again, this time to find it blocked by Senator Sessions.

We find it hard to believe that the Presidential Records Act, which has been the law of the land for 30 years, suddenly needs to be undone. We don’t understand why unclassified communications between a president and his advisors should remain secret indefinitely. Presidential records are the property of the federal government. They do not belong to the president and certainly not to his heirs. No one is arguing that classified information should become public, and nothing in the Presidential Records Act would suddenly make top secret information available for all to see. Instead, this bill would simply ensure that after a president leaves office, we have information available to form objective opinions about his administration.

With his hold, Senator Sessions (and Senator Bunning before him) is thwarting legislation that would enable academics, historians, researchers, and even future presidents to learn from the mistakes and successes of this administration. Rather, the Senators who block this bill are doing the bidding of a White House with a Nixonian penchant for secrecy and leaving the rest of us in the dark.