Bush administration again delays release of Reagan papers

Tuesday, July 24, 2001
President Ronald
Reagan in Oval Office at White House in June 1985.

Ronald Reagan’s White House records, due to be released to the public earlier this year, remain sealed as the Bush administration recently asked for a second extension in which to consider their release.

The papers, some 68,000 pages comprising discussions among Reagan and his advisers, were to come out in January, but the White House asked for time to review the papers. In March, it requested a June 21 deadline but has since asked for it to be extended to Aug. 31.

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy said that if the administration continues to ask for extensions, it would appear that it was ignoring the intent of the law and “one would have to start looking for congressional action to get these records.”

“The White House clearly has potential for conflict of interest,” said Aftergood, adding that any effort to seal the records must come with “a clear, reviewable justification.”

Some say Bush might have some cause for worry because some of his top aides and his father, then vice president, all worked under Reagan. These aides include Secretary of State Colin Powell, Budget Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and several others.

The records fall under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a post-Watergate measure that became law after former President Richard Nixon attempted to hold onto his papers and tape recordings as personal property. This act made presidential records, starting with Reagan’s, government property.

The law keeps records containing “confidential communications requesting or submitting advice between the president and his advisors, or between such advisors” sealed for 12 years. After 12 years, the documents may no longer be kept secret.

The 12-year period for the Reagan papers expired in January. But the law also requires the National Archives to notify the current president about the records. In February, the National Archives gave Bush the required 30-day notification.

The White House initially asked for an extension through June 21. But last month, it asked for a second extension through the end of August.

A White House press officer referred calls to the National Archives or to the White House general counsel’s office.

Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives, said the Bush administration revised its deadline request in a letter last month.

“Basically, they’re looking, I think, at the issue as a whole, rather than reviewing the papers themselves,” Cooper said in a telephone interview. “President Bush may claim a constitutionally based privilege over the records.”

Cooper referred further questions to the White House.

Numerous calls to the White House general counsel’s office were not returned.

But in previous statements, the White House has denied accusations from historians that the administration delayed the release of the records because some of Bush’s aides used to work under Reagan. Instead, officials said they were moving deliberately with their response in an effort to set a proper precedent for the release of the records, the first such release under the 1978 law.

Ian Marquand, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom-of-Information Committee, said the records must come out “regardless of how many Reagan holdovers are in the White House.”

“If there are concerns about the records reflecting poorly on current members in Bush’s cabinet, so be it,” Marquand said in a telephone interview. “I can’t believe security issues from as much as 20 years ago are such an issue today.”

Harry Hammitt, publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter tracking government access issues, said he was willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt. But he said the White House would have to provide pretty good reasons for either withholding records or asking for more extensions.

“I think it is dangerous to allow the president to kind of just continue taking extensions,” Hammitt said in a telephone interview. “Congress set these statues up to say these presidential records must be disclosed at a certain time.”

Aftergood, too, said he hoped White House officials would act in good faith and see that the records are released soon.

“There is the potential for abuse of authority to withhold these papers indefinitely and to ignore the intent of the law,” he said in a telephone interview. “I hope they will comply with the August deadline and not ask for another extension, and this will just turn out to be a hiccup.”

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