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Bush's War on History

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"History will be on the ballot," I wrote two days before Election 2000, though I didn't comprehend how much the nation's ability to know its recent past was weighing in the balance.

Indeed, declassification of records was not even a blip on the campaign's radar screen, certainly nothing compared to the news media's interest in Vice President Al Gore's "earth-tone" clothing or Texas Gov. George W. Bush's pledge to restore "honor and decency" to the White House.

But it's 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 public's 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.

A continuation of these historical disclosures under Gore might have given the American people a more balanced awareness of what had been done in their name in the four-decade-long struggle with the Soviet Union.

Under a newly applicable presidential records law, those documents would have included papers from Ronald Reagan's presidency, documents that could have implicated Bush's 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."

Little did I know, however, that the reality would be even worse, that Bush would not only block the release of those documents but move aggressively to reclassify papers already released - and let the heirs of presidents and vice presidents continue the withholding of historic records long after the principals had died.

New Secrecy

One of Bush's 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 Bush's 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 Clinton's 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. Bush's Nov. 1, 2001, executive order granted former national executives - and their families - the right to control the documents indefinitely.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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