Indeed, declassification of records was not even a blip on the campaigns radar screen, certainly nothing compared to the news medias interest in Vice President Al Gores earth-tone clothing or Texas Gov. George W. Bushs pledge to restore honor and decency to the White House.
But its now clear that government secrecy covering both current events and historical ones should have registered as a far more important election issue. Gore and Bush represented very different approaches toward the publics right to know.
Toward the end of the Clinton-Gore administration, there had been a surge in the declassification of records that exposed the dark underbelly of the U.S. victory in the Cold War, records showing American knowledge and complicity in murder, torture and other crimes in places such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina.
Under a newly applicable presidential records law, those documents would have included papers from Ronald Reagans presidency, documents that could have implicated Bushs father, Vice President George H.W. Bush, in misjudgments and wrongdoing.
So, my story, History on the Ballot dated Nov. 5, 2000, predicted that a victory by George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, would mean that the flow of records could slow to a trickle or be stopped outright.
One of Bushs first acts after being inaugurated President on Jan. 20, 2001, was to stop the scheduled release of documents from the Reagan-Bush administration. Supposedly, the delay was to permit a fuller review of the papers, but that review was strung out through Bushs first several months in office.
Then, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush began considering how to lock those records away from the public indefinitely. On Nov. 1, 2001, Bush issued Executive Order 13233, which effectively negated the 1978 Presidential Records Act by allowing presidents, vice presidents and their heirs the power to prevent many document releases.
The Watergate-era public-records law had declared that the records of presidents and vice presidents who took office after Jan. 20, 1981, would belong to the American people and would be released 12 years after a President left office, except for still sensitive papers, such as those needing protection because of national security or personal privacy.
Because of those time frames, a large volume of Reagan-Bush records were due for release to the public on Jan. 20, 2001.
Eight years earlier, the senior George Bush had tried to undercut the Presidential Records Act before leaving office. On Jan. 19, 1993, the day before Bill Clintons Inauguration, George H.W. Bush struck a deal with then-U.S. Archivist Don W. Wilson, granting Bush control over computerized records from his presidency, including the power to destroy computer tapes and hard drives.
Wilson then landed a job as director of the George Bush Center in Texas in what looked like a payoff for ceding control of the computerized records. In 1995, a federal judge struck down the Bush-Wilson agreement, in effect, resuming the countdown toward the first implementation of the Presidential Records Act in 2001.
Facing that deadline while taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2001, George W. Bush had his White House counsel Alberto Gonzales draft up paperwork that first suspended and then gutted the law. Bushs Nov. 1, 2001, executive order granted former national executives and their families the right to control the documents indefinitely.
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