Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Fight Brews over Ex-Presidents' Papers ; Bush Signed an Order Friday That Historians Say Will Curb Their Access to White House Documents. A Lawsuit Is Likely

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Fight Brews over Ex-Presidents' Papers ; Bush Signed an Order Friday That Historians Say Will Curb Their Access to White House Documents. A Lawsuit Is Likely

Article excerpt

If a new executive order signed by President Bush had been in place years ago, Americans might never have had an opportunity to hear President Johnson's private phone conversations with his aides - as they did recently on C-Span radio broadcasts.

They might never have known the true story of the Cuban missile crisis, the Iran-contra scandal, or even Watergate.

That is why the executive order on presidential records, which Mr. Bush signed Nov. 1, is likely to be challenged in court.

The order "could have very broad implications with respect to restriction of access to historically significant documents," says Scott Nelson, a lawyer at the Public Citizen Litigation Group. The consumer-advocacy group, along with historical associations, will "very likely file litigation" seeking to overturn Mr. Bush's action, Mr. Nelson says.

Historians are furious about Bush's order, which is the first test case of the Presidential Records Act. The act, which Congress passed in the aftermath of Watergate, requires a president to release confidential communications with his aides 12 years after his term ends. The act took effect in 1981, making Jan. 20, 2001, the date for public release of 68,000 pages of President Ronald Reagan's papers.

But the Bush administration delayed the decision to release three times, so it could establish a process for dealing with these and subsequent papers. Under the new executive order, both the former president and the sitting president must agree to the release, and researchers must show a "demonstrated, specific need" to get access to the material.

"Congress in the '70s made you and me the owners of the papers," counters Hugh Davis Graham, a presidential historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Bush order changes that law, he says, "turning it right on its head, gutting it. It's an astounding reach."

Rep. Steve Horn (R) of California is holding hearings on the Bush order today.

The White House says critics are overreacting. …

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