News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
MONDAY, MARCH 12, 2007


Presidents donít own publicís information

Historians need primary sources — original documents, contemporary writings, records generated by the people theyíre writing about or close associates — in order to get their facts and analysis right. It seems odd that the Russian government would be more forthcoming than the American government in releasing such material.

Yet thatís what happened, according to The New York Times, when scholars sought access to records of the historic meeting in December 1989 between President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

That meeting marked the end of the Cold War. It also diminished the need for either government to keep secrets from the other.

Four years after the event, the Russian government published a transcript. But the U.S. transcript is still not available.

Blame it on the George W. Bush administrationís obsession with secrecy. In 2001, the current president issued a directive that restricted the release of presidential records.

Under that directive, sitting presidents can delay the release of papers indefinitely. Former presidents, vice presidents and their families have more control than they once did. Previously, documents would be released if a president did not object within 30 days; now, the president must give specific permission.

In 1978 after Watergate, Congress passed a law giving the American public ownership of presidential papers. Mr. Bushís order swung the pendulum in the other direction.

Now Congress needs to act again, and fortunately a bill is pending. Sponsors include Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Presidents are only temporary custodians of information that belongs to the people. They shouldnít be able to keep papers private for one day longer than national security justifies, even if they find those papers embarrassing.

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