ALA raises red flag on recent Bush executive order

Contact: Beverley Becker


For Immediate Release

March 1, 2002

ALA raises red flag on recent Bush executive order

Order 13233 effectively invalidates Presidential Records Act

A new executive order issued by President George W. Bush restricts access to the records of former presidents. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA) and The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) urge librarians to alert their patrons and the public about this effort to close the public record.

Executive Order 13233, signed by President Bush on November 1, 2001, effectively invalidates the Presidential Records Act (PRA). The PRA was passed in 1978 in the wake of the controversy over former President Richard Nixon's attempt to control access to his documents and the infamous tape recordings made in the Oval Office. It decreed that the records of presidents and vice-presidents are public property, which must be made available to historians, journalists and the public no later than 12 years after the president or vice-president leaves office.

"Librarians can raise public awareness of this important issue by doing what they do best - creating engaging exhibits, developing book lists and encouraging community conversation," said Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "By featuring significant historical works that would not have been published or written had the order been in effect, and providing library users with a list of these works, local libraries will help educate, inform and spark dialogue on this issue."

The PRA has permitted historians and journalists to provide the public with an extraordinary understanding of major events in American history by highlighting the role presidential policy decisions have played in shaping contemporary American society. President Bush's executive order permits any sitting president, past president or relative of a president to prevent the release of a former president's papers for an indefinite period of time by claiming "executive privilege," even if the claim is legally invalid.

These new restrictions impose an enormous burden on the process of writing and analyzing history and public policy. Some of the significant works of biography and history made possible by the PRA include: Robert Caro's three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, David Herbert Donald's "Lincoln," David McCullough's "Truman," and Peter Bourne's "Jimmy Carter," as well as works on the Vietnam War, Watergate and contemporary U. S. foreign policy. Had the order been in effect over the last two decades, at least 47 biographies and histories might not have been published.

At risk currently are works in progress examining the Reagan administration, the Iran-Contra scandal, the support given to the Afghan mujahedin by the Reagan and (senior) Bush administrations, and other critical issues affecting and informing U.S. public policy.

The American Historical Association, the National Security Archive, the Organization of American Historians and several prominent academics have joined with Public Citizen to file suit to overturn the Bush Executive Order and require the National Archives to make presidential records available once more under the terms of the PRA. The FTRF, the legal defense arm of the ALA, is supporting their efforts as an
amicus and is filing a brief supporting the plaintiffs' efforts to preserve access to the public record.

"Free people read freely," Krug said. "We must work to preserve this basic American right and ensure access to the broadest range of information."

For more information about the Presidential Records Act, Bush Executive Order 13233, and the lawsuit to overturn the Order, visit the following Web sites:

Presidential Records Act Executive Order

The National Security Archive

Ongoing List of Historical Works That Would Have Been Affected by Executive Order 13233

Amicus Brief and Motion