When authoritarian forces seize control of a government, they typically move first against the public’s access to information, under the theory that a confused populace can be more easily manipulated. They take aim at the radio stations, TV and newspapers.
In the case of George W. Bush in 2001, he also took aim at historical records, giving himself and his family indefinite control over documents covering the 12 years of his father’s terms as President and Vice President.
It was, therefore, significant that one of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to revoke the Bush Family’s power over that history and to replace it with an easier set of regulations for accessing the records.
Just as George W. Bush upon taking office in January 2001 immediately delayed the scheduled release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Obama wasted no time in reversing that policy by signing a new executive order on his first working day in office.
Eight years earlier, George W. Bush initially postponed the document release and then – after the 9/11 attacks – sought to extend the cloak of secrecy over those documents virtually forever.
Bush signed Executive Order 13233 on Nov. 1, 2001, granting the sitting President as well as former Presidents or ex-Vice Presidents – or their heirs – veto power over release of many documents.
In other words, Bush was giving himself and his family effective control over key chapters of 20 years of American history (his father’s eight years as Vice President and four years as President, and his own eight years as President).
Presumably at some point, that power would have passed to George W. Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, and to their progeny, giving the family a kind of dynastic control over how Americans would understand key events of an important national era.
Self-serving myths could become a substitute for accurate history – all the better to protect the Bush Family’s interests.
In a real-life sense, what Bush’s order did was frustrate the ability of journalists and historians to file Freedom of Information Act requests for even routine information from the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush-41 era.
Information that once was quickly available – like calendars of senior officials – became subject to multiple layers of approvals, stretching out a process from days or weeks to months or to a year or more.
First, the government archivists examined the material to excise any classified or personal information. That essentially was the extent of the old process for opening up routine documents in a brief period of time.
Under the Bush rules, however, even routine documents were referred to designees of both the sitting and former Presidents (or ex-Vice Presidents) for a decision on asserting some privilege. Even if no privilege was asserted, the process was stretched out by months, sometimes more than a year.
And once some routine document finally got released – if the information required a follow-up request to clarify something – the cumbersome process would start all over again.
Anyone with a deadline was either forced to write with limited (and possibly misleading) information or had to forego writing altogether. The delays were an effective means of killing stories that might embarrass the Bush Family.
Sometimes the stories weren’t just about history either. For instance, I encountered frustrations from Bush’s executive order over the past two years as I sought documents pertaining to the credibility of Bush’s choice for Defense Secretary, Robert Gates.
Gates had been deputy national security adviser under Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, and nailing down Gates’s whereabouts on a specific day in April 1989 would have supported or undermined his credibility in relation to allegations implicating Gates’s in Reagan-Bush-41 era scandals.
So, on Nov. 15, 2006, a week after Gates’s Pentagon nomination, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Gates’s calendars from 1989.
Based on my (pre-Bush-43) experience, I thought the information might be available before Gates’s confirmation hearings in December. However, it took until late March 2007 for the George H.W. Bush Library to send me the calendar entries.
Initially, when I examined the calendar entries, they appeared to support Gates’s claim that he was at work at the White House on the day in question. Still, I checked on a couple of entries that he had listed for public events, and it turned out that he had skipped them.
Because of those discrepancies, it became necessary to check on the non-public events listed on Gates’s calendar, such as meetings with other officials. I filed two additional FOIA requests on April 5, 2007.
The two requests cleared the initial review by the archivists in mid-to-late summer 2007. But then, the requests got hung up in the Bush Family clearance process, requiring approval from representatives of both the senior George Bush and the junior George Bush.
One request wasn’t released until May 2008, more than a year after my FOIA; the second request wasn’t sent out until September 2008, more than a year after the archivists had removed any sensitive information.
The additional information clarified a few points for me but did not conclusively establish Gates’s whereabouts on the day in question. That would have required another follow-up or two, but the interminable delays had left little time before Election 2008.
Assuming that Gates would be out of his senior position by the time any new FOIAs could be processed under Bush’s rules, I decided that it made little sense to continue pursuing this question.
Ironically, President Obama has renewed the timeliness of this Gates credibility question in two ways: first, by keeping him on as Defense Secretary and now, by revoking the Bush Family’s power to delay and obstruct.
In his first full day in office, Obama revived hope that historical records might become available in a reasonable length of time.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on January 22, 2009.