With the Bush Administration winding down, ProPublica asks a good question, “What documents can the White House put in the shredder?” The administration’s fetish for secrecy is well known. It’s a logical assumption that the Bush/Cheney team would like to make some documents disappear.
ProPublica looked at the laws governing what documents they are required to save, starting with the Presidential Records Act. Congress passed it in 1978 as a result of Watergate and the struggle over Nixon’s papers and records. The law requires all records be preserved that documents the president and the vice’s “activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties.” The law does not require that personal and political records, or “superfluous” documents be saved. Outgoing administrations are to turn over presidential and vice presidential records to the National Archives, which catalogs them and is to make them available to the public after 12 years.
In 2001, however, the Bush issued an executive order, the infamous No. 13233, requiring current and former presidents and vice presidents to authorize the release of their papers. With the stroke of a pen, he gave himself and the other presidents, vice presidents, and even their heirs the ability to keep documents secret. Earlier this fall, Slate listed this executive order as number one of the 10 orders the new president should toss out. Obama has promised (pdf) to “nullify the Bush order and establish procedures to ensure the timely release of presidential records.”
Let’s hope that historians, journalists and other sleuths will be able to thwart the Bush/Cheney veil of secrecy when they get access their papers in a dozen years or so.