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A Conspiracy of One

William Kelly

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By Todd J. Gillman

The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON -- A fight over White House secrecy has taken a new twist, with Senate officials confirming Wednesday that a Republican senator is secretly blocking a bill that would reverse President Bush's 2001 executive order allowing ex-presidents to seal their records indefinitely.

"We need to smoke out whoever it is. Maybe somebody at the White House called a Republican senator and said put a hold on it," said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History, a leading advocate of the legislation.

The anonymous hold adds an ironic chapter to a fight that has pitted an administration with a penchant for secrecy against historians, archivists and librarians.

The White House has threatened a veto to protect Bush's executive order, arguing that the bill to overturn it encroaches on legitimate executive authority.

Open government advocates say the order will let Bush and other former presidents hide embarrassing or revealing documents that belong to the public without explanation. They say it undermines the potential value of the Bush library planned at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

They're especially outraged that the order lets heirs of a deceased ex-president retain control over White House papers -- a step legal scholars view as unprecedented and as an unlawful delegation of executive power.

The House approved a bill to overturn the Bush order in March, on a 333-93 vote, far more than the two-thirds needed to override a veto. The Senate government affairs committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., agreed in June, and backers expected a floor vote before the August recess.

Suspicion for the hold initially focused on three senators -- Ted Stevens of Alaska, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and George Voinovich of Ohio -- who objected in committee to a provision giving ex-presidents 40 days to review document requests. That was changed to 90 days to address their concerns.

Aides to Sens. Stevens and Voinovich said Wednesday that their bosses are not blocking the bill. Coburn aides didn't respond to inquiries.

At least three more of the 49 GOP senators can be ruled out: Texas Sen. John Cornyn and New Hampshire's John Sununu, who are co-sponsors, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Lieberman committee, who openly supports the bill.

Senate rules don't explicitly provide for a "hold," but the mechanism dates at least to Lyndon Johnson's days as majority leader. A hold is basically a way of signaling the intent to filibuster, and by tradition, it can be filed anonymously.

An ethics law President Bush signed last Friday tinkers with that tradition, though it may not unmask the senator blocking the records bill. Among other things, the new law limits gifts from lobbyists, requires disclosure of lobbyists' donations to presidential libraries, and requires lawmakers to attach their names to spending requests known as earmarks.

One obscure provision forces senators to identify themselves within six days when they place a hold. But the senior Senate aides said Wednesday that the rule kicks in only if the majority leader or another senator tries to demand a vote on a particular bill.

Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, called the delay frustrating, and a bit ironic.

"The president's executive order altered the government's policy on public access to these crucial historical records," he said. "If we're to have any hope of learning from historical experience we need to have access to the records. And the best way to undermine the historical record is to close it down."

Laws covering presidential records stem from Watergate. In 1974, Richard Nixon tried to seal some of his papers and destroy others. Congress intervened. Four years later it passed the Presidential Records Act, clarifying that the public owns White House records, but creating a 12-year embargo for release, with privacy and national security exemptions.

Bush signed the order seven weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. So far, it applies to three former presidents: Ronald Reagan, the president's father and Bill Clinton.

At the time, Bush aides said a dozen years might not be long enough for officials to recognize dangers inherent in release of some documents.

A lawsuit by the watchdog group Public Citizen and groups representing political scientists, historians and journalists is still pending.

Researchers say release of records from past administrations slowed markedly in the aftermath, though National Archives officials and the Bush administration blame staff shortages at the archives.

Thanks to Tom Blackwell for passing this on. BK

Edited by William Kelly
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