Richard Reeves

In War, Truth and History Usually Die First

With a stroke of the pen on Nov. 1, President Bush stabbed history in the back and blocked Americans' "right to know" how presidents actually make decisions. A five-page executive order released by the White House the next day ended more than 30 years of movement toward openness in government and re-established the old standard of "need to know."

From now on, scholars, journalists and any other citizens will have to show "a demonstrated, specific need to know" even to ask to see documents and records from the Reagan, Clinton and two Bush presidencies -- and all others to come. And if an individual or institution asks to see records never made public during a presidency but later deposited in the National Archives by former presidents, the requester seeking documents will now have to receive the permission of both the former president and the incumbent.

The wording of the Bush order puts it this way: "The Archivist shall not permit access to these records by a requester unless and until the incumbent President advises the Archivist that the former President and the incumbent President agree to authorize access to the records or until so ordered by a final and nonappealable court."

My response to that was to send President Bush a couple of books on recent presidencies along with a note saying they might become valuable artifacts, because no writer will be able to do books like them anymore without approval from two presidents. I also attached a letter from his father, the first President Bush, praising the work of documenting presidential decision-making.

Archival research is grinding work, kind of like mining for diamonds, I imagine. It takes years of persistence and perseverance trying to follow the trail of how the nation goes to war or raises taxes, or how presidents choose their staffs and plan their re-election campaigns. But the rewards are great. Hours of searching through boxes of papers all seem worth it when you see John F. Kennedy's initials on a memo talking of the possibility of a Berlin Wall weeks before the communists put it up -- he knew it was going to happen! -- or Richard Nixon asking Henry Kissinger in a note: "Is it possible we were wrong from the start in Vietnam?"

There are rules upon rules upon rules about which presidential papers become available and when -- and some of them defy all reason. For more than 25 years, an inscription by the Irish writer Brendan Behan to President Kennedy was withheld from researchers, apparently because it was written on a copy of Evergreen magazine, a literary journal considered racy stuff in those days. And the rules change, though they have been changing in the direction of more and easier access, beginning with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 and post-Watergate laws, regulations and decisions defining presidential papers -- with the exception of obviously personal items and true matters of national security -- as public property, not a private archive.

Until last week, a citizen had the right to seek to review presidential papers five years after the end of a presidency under the FOIA, or to simply ask for all but the most sensitive records after 12 years. No more. "If you disagree, you can still go to court," a White House spokesperson told me. Right. If you have years and tens of thousands of dollars to spare to get to an unappealable decision.

The White House is emphasizing two reasons for Bush's order. One, certainly valid, is that premature disclosure of decision memos and such could stifle candid dialogue inside any White House. Second, they say, this is just a way to streamline the process, make it more orderly.

The first has always been true, and the republic has managed to survive when some truth slips out 20 years or so after the crisis of the day. The second is so unnecessary it is ludicrous. To make its case, the White House released the fact that there are 68,000 FOIA applications for records in President Reagan's library north of Los Angeles. Well, I know, because I am on the list there and have been told it will take at least a year and a half to process new requests. But it is hard to figure out how double presidential oversight will speed things up, unless the idea is to just say no.

And I think that is the idea. There are surely Reagan-era records that might be a touch embarrassing to some men and women back in power with the second President Bush. More important, though, the most controversial record searches of my lifetime have involved foreign assassinations and assassination attempts, particularly regarding the deaths of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, President Salvador Allende and Gen. Rene Schneider in Chile, and Fidel Castro in Cuba. I suspect these Bushmen, aware that they are headed into a nasty war, simply do not want to have to spend their later lives defending the decisions they are making now.

Secrecy is their way. If truth is the first casualty in all war, in this one, complete and candid history will be the second.

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