Undoing Bush: Obama orders easier access to public records

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, in his first full day in office, revoked a controversial executive order signed by President Bush in 2001 that limited release of former presidents' records.

The new order could expand public access to records of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the years to come as well as other past leaders, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

"It's extraordinary that a new president would address this issue on his first full day in office," Aftergood said. "It signifies the great importance he attaches to open, accountable government. The new order suggests President Obama will take a narrow view of executive privilege and assert it in a much more limited way than what we've seen in the recent past."

Under Bush's order, former presidents had broad ability to claim executive privilege and could designate others including family members who survive them to exercise executive privilege on their behalf.

Obama's new order gives ex-presidents less leeway to withhold records, Aftergood said, and takes away the ability of presidents' survivors to designate that privilege.

Separately, an Obama memorandum issued Wednesday also appears to effectively rescind a 2001 memo by President Bush's then-Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft giving agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests.

"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. This administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but with those who seek it to be known," Obama said before a gathering that included his senior staff. "The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

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