Obama revokes Bush order limiting release of presidential records

In his second day in office, President Obama issued an executive order limiting the ability of presidents and ex-presidents to restrict release of presidential records. According to the Associated Press, the order overturns a 7-year-old order by former President Bush that expanded presidential authority to keep their White House records private. Under the Obama order, requests to suppress release are limited to national security, law enforcement and internal communications records. The order allows the national archivist, White House counsel and attorney general to overrule a request to block release. – DR

Obama limits ex-presidents’ discretion on records
By MARK SHERMAN – 2 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama issued an executive order Wednesday that limits the ability of former presidents to block the release of sensitive records of their time in the White House.

Obama’s action in his first full day in office overturned an earlier order issued by George W. Bush that prompted a federal lawsuit.

Obama said former presidents may ask to have certain documents kept private, but they no longer may compel the National Archives to do so.

Obama’s executive order also makes clear that neither former vice presidents nor relatives of former presidents who have died have authority to keep records private.

Bush’s executive order was issued in November 2001. A federal judge ruled parts of it invalid in 2007. Obama’s order revoked it entirely.

Scott Nelson, a Public Citizen lawyer who led the challenge to Bush’s order, said researchers should find it easier to gain access to records under the new order.

“It’s a great signal to send on the president’s first day in office,” Nelson said.

The Presidential Records Act, which followed Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s attempts to hold on to his papers and tape recordings, made presidential records the property of the government, not former presidents.

Under the law, former presidents and vice presidents can restrict access to some of their records, including confidential communications with advisers, for up to 12 years. After that, most documents must be made public.

Bush’s order gave former presidents more authority beyond the 12-year period to claim executive privilege to withhold certain papers because they contain military, diplomatic or national security secrets, communications among the president and his advisers or legal advice.

It said the U.S. archivist had to abide by a former president’s decision to keep records private and said former vice presidents or the heirs of a former president who had died also could forbid the release of documents.

Obama’s order limits claims of executive privilege to records concerning national security, law enforcement or internal communications. It also specifies that only living former presidents may request that papers not be made public and gives them 30 days to say so once they get word of the archivist’s intention to release records.

A request will be evaluated by the archivist, the White House counsel and the attorney general, under Obama’s order. They can disregard the former president’s wishes and allow for the release of the material, the order says.

Tom Blanton, director of the open-government advocate National Security Archive, said the order applies to former Vice President Dick Cheney’s records.

Cheney has been embroiled in a lawsuit over which of his records have to be handed over to the National Archives. On Monday a federal judge ruled Cheney has broad discretion to determine which must be preserved. Those that are handed over to the Archives are no longer protected by executive privilege, according to Blanton.