of records was not even a blip on the campaign’s radar screen, certainly
nothing compared to the news media’s interest in Vice President Al
Gore’s “earth-tone” clothing or Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s pledge to
restore “honor and decency” to the White House.
But it’s now clear that
government secrecy – covering both current events and historical ones –
should have registered as a far more important election issue. Gore and
Bush represented very different approaches toward the public’s right to
Toward the end of the
Clinton-Gore administration, there had been a surge in the
declassification of records that exposed the dark underbelly of the U.S.
“victory” in the Cold War, records showing American knowledge and
complicity in murder, torture and other crimes in places such as
Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina.
A continuation of these
historical disclosures under Gore might have given the American people a
more balanced awareness of what had been done in their name in the
four-decade-long struggle with the Soviet Union.
Under a newly applicable
presidential records law, those documents would have included papers
from Ronald Reagan’s presidency, documents that could have implicated
Bush’s father, Vice President George H.W. Bush, in misjudgments and
So, my story, “History
on the Ballot” dated Nov. 5, 2000, predicted that a victory by
George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, would mean that the
flow of records “could slow to a trickle or be stopped outright.”
Little did I know,
however, that the reality would be even worse, that Bush would not only
block the release of those documents but move aggressively to reclassify
papers already released – and let the heirs of presidents and vice
presidents continue the withholding of historic records long after the
principals had died.
One of Bush’s first acts
after being inaugurated President on Jan. 20, 2001, was to stop the
scheduled release of documents from the Reagan-Bush administration.
Supposedly, the delay was to permit a fuller review of the papers, but
that review was strung out through Bush’s first several months in
Then, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks,
Bush began considering how to lock those records away from the public
indefinitely. On Nov. 1, 2001, Bush issued Executive Order 13233, which
effectively negated the 1978 Presidential Records Act by allowing
presidents, vice presidents and their heirs the power to prevent many
The Watergate-era public-records law had declared that the records of
presidents and vice presidents who took office after Jan. 20, 1981,
would belong to the American people and would be released 12 years after
a President left office, except for still sensitive papers, such as
those needing protection because of national security or personal
Because of those time frames, a large volume of Reagan-Bush records
were due for release to the public on Jan. 20, 2001.
Eight years earlier, the senior George Bush had tried to undercut the
Presidential Records Act before leaving office. On Jan. 19, 1993, the
day before Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, George H.W. Bush struck a deal
with then-U.S. Archivist Don W. Wilson, granting Bush control over
computerized records from his presidency, including the power to destroy
computer tapes and hard drives.
Wilson then landed a job as director of the George Bush Center in
Texas in what looked like a payoff for ceding control of the
computerized records. In 1995, a federal judge struck down the
Bush-Wilson agreement, in effect, resuming the countdown toward the
first implementation of the Presidential Records Act in 2001.
Facing that deadline while taking the oath of office on Jan.
20, 2001, George W. Bush had his White House counsel Alberto Gonzales
draft up paperwork that first suspended and then gutted the law. Bush’s
Nov. 1, 2001, executive order granted former national executives – and
their families – the right to control the documents indefinitely.
Bush’s order amounted to a grant of hereditary
power over the nation’s history. Because of his father’s 12 years as
Vice President and President and his own possible eight years as
President, Bush’s order could mean that control over 20 years of
American history might someday be invested in the hands of the Bush
Twins, Jenna and Barbara.
[For more on Executive Order 13233, see Bruce P.
Records, Our History” or Christopher Dreher’s “Hobbling
Bush Family Secrets
Though it’s not entirely clear what the Reagan-Bush
records would have revealed if they had been released in 2001, the Bush
Family had a lot to worry about. The Bush
legacy could have suffered greatly from anything approaching full
disclosure of the Cold War history.
In particular, the
documentation might have added to an already troubling history about the
senior George Bush and thus could have undercut the younger George
Bush’s claim that he carried with him his father’s “good name,” arguably
his strongest asset when he sought and claimed the presidency.
The records might have
revealed attempts to frustrate investigations and protect secrets
relating to earlier abuses. For instance, light might have been shed on
what role Vice President George Bush played in the 1980s limiting
investigations into the 1976 terrorist car-bombing of former Chilean
diplomat Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt.
The elder George Bush
had been CIA director at the time of the murders, which were carried out
in Washington, D.C., by agents of the right-wing military dictatorship
of his friend, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Bush appeared guilty, at minimum,
of gross negligence for not stopping the bombing and then obstructing
the murder probe.
What was already known
about the elder George Bush’s handling of the Letelier-Moffitt murders
was disturbing. As CIA director, he had received a warning from a U.S.
ambassador about a suspicious mission being carried out in the United
States by Chilean intelligence then headed by a paid CIA asset, Col.
But Bush’s CIA took no
known action to stop the assassination. After the fatal car-bombing on
Sept. 21, 1976, Bush’s CIA consulted with Contreras and planted false
stories in the U.S. news media to divert suspicion away from the
killers. The CIA also withheld evidence from the FBI. [For details, see
H.W. Bush & a Case of State Terrorism” or Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Though several of the
Letelier assassins were tracked down during Jimmy Carter’s
administration, the investigation of the Chilean higher-ups languished
through the Reagan-Bush years. The probe was then revived by Clinton’s
Justice Department (before fading away again after the younger George
Bush became President).
documents also might have revealed the senior George Bush’s role in a
number of national security scandals from the 1980s – both his direct
involvement and his efforts to thwart official investigations.
Those scandals included
secret arms sales to Iran (dating back to the illicit “October Surprise”
deal allegedly struck in 1980 behind President Carter’s back); a covert
pipeline of war materiel to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (purportedly including
chemical weapons); and clandestine dealings with Nicaraguan contra
rebels (some implicated in cocaine trafficking).
we have tried to compile as much of this history as we could. [For
instance, regarding the early arms deals with Iran, see “The
Imperium’s Quarter Century.”] But the throttling of the document
releases has proved devastating.
George W. Bush has even
moved aggressively to reclassify documents that had previously been
by the privately funded National Security Archive at George Washington
University found that more than 55,000 pages of records have been taken
off the shelves of publicly available documents.
In my Nov. 5, 2000,
on the Ballot,” I noted that “while the Clinton-Gore record on
openness has been mixed, the (Clinton-Gore) administration has given
Americans back important chapters of their recent history. The record of
a second Bush administration could be quite different.
“George W. Bush could be
faced with choices early in his administration about releasing
additional CIA records that could implicate his father in activities
surrounding a double homicide (the Letelier-Moffitt case).
“The potential for other
new disclosures about crimes – from the 1980 October Surprise operations
to contra-drug trafficking to Iraqgate – seem unlikely, too, since they
would cast a negative light on the Bush Family legacy.
“The inclusion of Cheney
on the Bush ticket further suggests that continuation of Cold War
cover-ups will be a hallmark of a Bush II administration. Cheney proved
his mettle with the Bush Family by protecting the elder George Bush
during the Iran-Contra troubles (when Cheney was a top Republican on the
congressional Iran-Contra committee.) …
“Given the Bush Family’s
success in containing unpleasant secrets from the past quarter century,
it also might be easier to understand why George W. Bush has taken
chances hiding his own personal indiscretions, as the recent disclosure
of a driving-under-the-influence arrest has shown.
“Far more often than
not, the Bushes have prevailed in keeping their secrets – and keeping a
truthful historical record – from the American people.”
It turned out that those
pessimistic predictions, made more than five years ago, have proven
correct – in spades.