Lewisville's Waiting for President Bush's Records. All, What, Three of 'Em?

As President Bush packs up the White House in advance of his move to Dallas next week(ish), the National Archives and Records Administration is in the process of trucking loads of paper, electronic and audio-visual documents to a storage space in Lewisville so that when the time comes, the boxes can be transported to the "freedom institute" and presidential library to be built at SMU. In fact, the opening section of the article "Escorting a Presidency Into History: NARA's Role in a White House Transition," which appears in the current issue of the National Archives' quarterly mag Prologue, deals with how the National Archives will ensure "the safe, smooth, and timely move of presidential and vice presidential records and artifacts from the outgoing George W. Bush administration."

The National Archives takes possession of Bush's record collection at 11 a.m. Dallas time on Wednesday, matter of fact. And the article states that not only do "the presidential collections being moved document the most personal and private thoughts and feelings of a president to the most formal foreign policy memorandums on presidential decision-making," they also "include the classified files of the National Security Council." Of course, in the case of George W. Bush, if that last part is true, it'll be a miracle akin to the parting of the Red Sea.

Because in addition to Executive Order 13233, which Bush signed in 2001and which gives former, current and future presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold papers from the public, the current efforts to access and assemble Bush and Co.'s records are being hampered by technical problems, legal battles and the Veep's efforts at obfuscation. An excerpt from The Washington Post's account:

Federal law requires outgoing White House officials to provide the Archives copies of their records, a cache estimated at more than 300 million messages and 25,000 boxes of documents depicting some of the most sensitive policymaking of the past eight years. But archivists are uncertain whether the transfer will include all the electronic messages sent and received by the officials, because the administration began trying only in recent months to recover from White House backup tapes hundreds of thousands of e-mails that were reported missing from readily accessible files in 2005.

The risks that the transfer may be incomplete are also pointed up by a continuing legal battle between a coalition of historians and nonprofit groups over access to Vice President Cheney's records. The coalition is contesting the administration's assertion in federal court this month that he "alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records" and "how his records will be created, maintained, managed, and disposed," without outside challenge or judicial review.
Kudos to the National Archives for their unheralded efforts at collection, transportation, organization and display. But in spite of them, it looks like SMU may become a shrine to government secrecy, not a tribute to intellectual discourse or democracy.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman