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Bush Order Allows Former Presidents to Withhold Records Scheduled for Disclosure; Congress Holds Hearing, SPJ Cries Foul


Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert
November 7, 2001
Vol. 6; No. 10

Contact: Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman ian@kpax.com or 406/542-4400.

Bush Order Allows Former Presidents to Withhold Records Scheduled for Disclosure; Congress Holds Hearing, SPJ Cries Foul

As President Bill Clinton left office in January of this year, the most sensitive records of President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George H.W. Bush became available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

When current President George W. Bush completes his present term, the presidential records of his father, George H.W. Bush, will become available. These scheduled transfers of presidential records from secret files to the public domain are provided for under the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

The PRA provides that most presidential records become available five years after a President leaves office. However, a President may designate that some records be kept confidential for 12 years. In either case, once the five-year or 12-year deadlines pass, Presidential records become subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Now, President George W. Bush has given former Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton the ability to overrule FOIA and prevent public disclosure of records from their administrations, even after the 12-year waiting period expires. In an Executive Order signed Nov. 1, President Bush ordered the following:

1) The Archivist of the United States shall inform a former President when a request is made for records for which presidential privilege has expired.

2) The former President has 90 days to grant or deny access to the records sought. During that time, there will be no access.

3) If the former President denies access, the records will not be released, even if the current President disagrees with the decision. The Archivist will be empowered to release the records only if both the sitting and former Presidents can reach agreement on which records shall be released.

The Bush Executive Order prompted a Nov. 6 oversight hearing by the House Committee on Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations. That subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-CA.)

The Society of Professional Journalists has written Rep. Horn, stating that the Nov. 1 Executive Order appears to be an attempt to avoid public accountability for a past administration.

For more information on this issue, SPJ suggests the following online resources:

*To read President Bush’s Executive Order, visit:

*To read SPJ’s position on the Executive Order, visit:

*To read the Clinton administration’s interpretation of the Presidential Records Act, visit the National Archives at:http://www.clinton.nara.gov/project_overview/presidential_records_act.html

*Following the House subcommittee’s November 6 hearing, information on that proceeding will be available at: http://www.house.gov/gefmir/index.htm


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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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