Secrecy One Step Too Far
By Tab Julius
A quiet yet disturbing event happened recently in Washington.
It has received precious little coverage, mainly a short report
by NPR on Weekend Edition and an article by the Associated
It may be that compared to all the horrific fighting in
Iraq, prisoner treatment scandals, kidnappings and more, news
about a newly appointed National Archivist seems boring by
comparison. Even on a quiet news day, it might be seemingly
too mundane to put anywhere near the front page. Most people
don't know what a national archivist is, much less why this
particular change is newsworthy.
On the face of it, the national archivist is the keeper
of the nation's records - the archives. The National Archives
control what information gets released to the public - and
what does not. Normally the National Archivist is an honorable
position held by honorable people, usually those who have
earned the highest esteem of their peers.
It's entirely possible, though, that were an administration
unusually preoccupied with secrecy to appoint an archivist
of their own choosing, then the public's ability to know what
goes on in their government would be severely limited.
It is for this reason that a National Archivist serves a
ten-year term - far beyond any one presidency. It is for this
reason of necessary transparency and public responsibility
that the National Archives was made an independent agency
in 1984. It is for this reason that a president may not remove
an archivist arbitrarily. And it is for this reason that Congress
wrote that it expects the appointment of a new National Archivist
to be made in consultation with recognized organizations of
professional archivists and historians.
To do anything less would be to risk having one party keep
political control over this country's history.
As is clear by now, the Bush administration has a demonstrated
penchant for secrecy. And that is why the recent news about
the resigning of the current archivist and Bush's appointment
of a new one is making many who are watching increasingly
uncomfortable about this administration's reluctance to be
open and transparent.
John Carlin is the current archivist. A Democrat, he has
been in the post for 9 years, and had indicated he intended
to stay through to the end of his term in 2005, which happened
to roughly coincide with his 65th birthday. Were this to happen,
and should Bush secure a second term, Bush would be within
his rights to appoint a successor, provided Bush was in keeping
with the wishes of Congress to find a highly respected archivist/historian
to appoint to this honorable position.
Oddly enough though, a few months ago Carlin submitted a
letter stating his intent to resign this coming fall, before
his term was up, just as soon as the Senate can confirm a
new Archivist. Even more unusual, Carlin is refusing to comment
as to whether or not he is leaving voluntarily. The obvious
speculation then is that the White House Bush has managed
to oust Carlin from his position prematurely.
This speculation has not been helped by the fact that the
Bush White House has turned around and nominated Allen Weinstein
for the position, one who is held in dubious esteem at best,
who has been criticized for having a penchant for privacy
not becoming a National Archivist and, to the surprise of
many, was nominated without any consultation with outside
experts - the first such time ever since 1984, and in direct
contravention with the wishes of Congress as expressed in
the House report accompanying the law that made the Archives
Now, failing to consult with outside agencies is disturbing
enough, but it's also against the law for a president to remove
a national archivist without giving a reason, and presumably
a good reason at that, to Congress. There is no apparent personal
reason for Carlin's sudden resignation, and his refusal to
state his resignation is voluntary can only lead one to assume
that it is involuntary. If so, then not only has the White
House gone against the law in ousting the Archivist, but also
against the wishes of Congress by privately installing their
To add another dimension to all this, one has to consider
the Presidential Records Act. The Presidential Records Act
serves to keep presidential records confidential for the first
twelve years after a president leaves office. The intention
here is to balance a president's need for objective and confidential
advice with the public's right to know. The twelve year period
is long enough to let most bygones be bygones, and yet short
enough to let the public view an administration's papers while
they may still have direct relevance to current events.
Now, the potential issue here is not so much George W. Bush's
records - Bush has twelve years before they would be released,
if they would be released at all (more on that in a second),
but rather George Herbert Walker Bush's records - the first
President Bush. His records come up for release in January.
Had John Carlin been able to complete his term as planned,
he would still have been National Archivist in January. But
by his premature leaving, the Bush administration is able
to have an Archivist of their choice in position in January,
to not only have a say over the release of the Bush I records,
but also control for the next ten years of the historical
recording of the Bush II administration.
Congress wanted the National Archives to be an independent
agency with a peer-approved archivist for a reason - because
failure to do so could strip away the last protection against
any one administration's desire for secrecy.
In his first year in office, George W. Bush took preliminary
steps to keep records secret, and not only that, but to make
the secrecy retroactive. Specifically, his Executive
Order issued November 1, 2001, attempted to amend the
Presidential Records Act such that if records of a prior president
(or vice-president) were requested, they could not be released
if that previous president objected OR if the current president
objected. The executive order does not overturn the Presidential
Records Act per se - it is still technically possible to have
records released - but it puts many hurdles, presumably time-consuming
ones, in the way; specifically they don't have to be released
until ordered to do so by "a final and nonappealable court
order." Of course, there is only one court in the land that
can issue a "final and nonappealable court order," that being
the Supreme Court of the United States.
The executive order change of November 1, 2001 was disturbing
to say the least, but in the immediate aftermath of September
11, 2001 it managed to slip by with only a modicum of controversy
- it wasn't high on everyone's radar screen, given all that
was going on. The current allegations that the Bush administration
was hot for Iraq from the get-go puts the executive order
in new light, because the order easily reaches back to the
first Bush administration, and helps to cover the current
administration in secrecy.
The real nail in the coffin, though, should the administration
be able to get away with it, is the seemingly mundane, boring,
yet abrupt, change in the National Archivist. As with the
presidency itself, in the right hands, it's an honored and
noble position. However if the person holding that position
has some other agenda, if they don't unquestionably have the
utmost intention of protecting our country's integrity, then
the potential damage is frightening indeed. People would be
right to be very concerned.