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President Should Not Control Release of Executive Branch Records, SPJ Says


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Ian Marquand
, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman,
(406) 542-4449 or ian@kpax.com
Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/648-8433 or across@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists today urged Congress not to allow President George W. Bush unprecedented veto power over the use of presidential records.

SPJ today sent a letter to the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations asking the members to consider the president’s Nov. 1 Executive Order an abuse of power and an avoidance of public accountability. The committee is conducting a hearing on the issue today. The Executive Order allows the president to withhold records of a former president who wants to release them.

SPJ said all presidential records should be released as scheduled because the law already has a 12-year waiting period that is adequate to protect national security and personal reputations.

"The Presidential Records Act was written for a reason – to make sure that Americans can hold the occupants of the White House accountable for their actions," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont., who wrote the letter to the House panel. "President Bush has executed an end run around Congress and the American public. Congress should be outraged. So should presidential scholars and ordinary citizens."

The president’s Executive Order would fly in the face of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, the
Society said, because the order allows the president in office to keep records secret for an undesignated length of time.

SPJ also pointed to a possible conflict of interest on the part of President Bush. The only records scheduled for release during Bush’s current term are those of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and many of the current president’s top advisers also worked in the inner circle of his father.

"While that may have nothing to do with this order, it’s a legitimate question," said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "The President owes the American people an explanation for this step into secrecy."

Following is the complete copy of the Society’s letter to the House subcommittee.

November 6, 2001

Rep. Stephen Horn
House Subcomm. on Gov’t Efficiency, Financial Management and
Intergovernmental Relations
Room B-373-A, Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Chairman Horn:

My name is Ian Marquand. I am national Freedom of Information Committee Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. My organization is the oldest and largest journalism organization in the United States, with some 9,000 members in every sector of American media.

I write today out of concern over President George W. Bush’s November 1 Executive Order allowing former Presidents to have veto power over the release of presidential records which normally would be available for release under federal statute.

My organization became concerned early in the term of George W. Bush that records from the administration of George H.W. Bush might not be released in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (44 U.S.C. 2201-2207.)

Last week, the other shoe dropped, as the current President Bush issued his order requiring the Archivist of the United States to notify former Presidents of requests for records under 2204 (c) (1) and allowing former Presidents to authorize the withholding of those records, with or without the concordance of the sitting president.

The Society of Professional Journalists believes this executive order represents an abuse of presidential authority and violates the spirit, if not the letter, of federal law. Further, we assert that President George W. Bush has a clear conflict of interest in this matter for two reasons:

1) The only presidential records scheduled for release during his current term are from the administration of his father, George H.W. Bush.

2) Many of the current President Bush’s top advisers also were in the inner circle of the former President Bush.

The Presidential Records Act, in concert with the federal Freedom of Information Act, clearly is intended to guarantee accountability and accurate scholarship of the top level of the Executive Branch. The fact that the Act allows a 12-year waiting period for the release of presidential records is adequate to protect national security and personal reputations.

In our view, the November 1 Executive Order appears to be an attempt to avoid public accountability for a past administration. Presidential records should be released as scheduled under the law. Congress and the American public deserve no less.

The Society has enjoyed an excellent working relationship with you and your committee for nearly a decade to preserve and improve access to government information. We appreciate the leading role you have taken to ensure that appropriate government records are readily available to the public and we thank you for your prompt attention to this issue.

Ian Marquand
SPJ FOI Committee Chair


The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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