By JON WIENER
HISTORY NEWS SERVICE
On Inauguration Day, the classified papers of former President George H.W. Bush became eligible for release -- as the law specifies, 12 years after he left office. Historians and journalists are hoping those papers will shed more light on the first President Bush's decision not to pursue Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. They could also resolve questions about Bush Senior's pardons of the principal figures in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal of the mid-1980s.
Overseeing the release of those papers is the responsibility of the archivist of the United States -- currently John Carlin, the former Democratic governor of Kansas appointed in 1995 by President Clinton. But President George W. Bush wants to replace him and nominated a new archivist last May, historian Allen Weinstein. Weinstein is author of two books on Soviet espionage in the United States and until recently headed the Center for Democracy in Washington. The nomination suggested to many that the White House wanted its own man supervising the release of the president's father's papers.
But the Weinstein nomination ran into trouble in the Senate after almost two dozen organizations of historians and archivists expressed concern. Despite Republican control of the Senate, Weinstein was not confirmed. So for the time being Carlin remains archivist, in charge of release of the first wave of the Bush Senior presidential papers. The new Senate will take up the Weinstein nomination again, probably in a month or two.
The fight over Weinstein is part of a larger battle over White House secrecy, this time focused on the National Archives. Most people know the National Archives only as the place you take the kids to see the Declaration of Independence. The archivist, however, is responsible not only for preserving government records of the past but also for making them available to the public. This latter role is crucial to the health of our democracy, which requires access to information about government and what it has been doing. But officials often prefer to work in secrecy.
The historians' and archivists' organizations objected to the White House nomination of Weinstein in part because the Bush people acted as if the archivist serves at the pleasure of the president. Congress, however, tried to make the office nonpolitical by specifying in a 1984 law that the term of the archivist was indefinite. Under the law, archivists can serve as long as they want; if the president wants to replace one, the president must show cause. Bush did not do that when he moved to replace Carlin with Weinstein. This prompted the historians and archivists to ask what Carlin had done to warrant his removal. The White House never bothered to offer an explanation.
There's a good reason why the archivist should not be a political appointee. It's because he faces decisions with major political consequences, such as releasing -- or withholding -- the Nixon White House tapes, the Kennedy Assassination Records, and now the files of the 9/11 commission. Decisions about access to these materials should be nonpartisan. That's why Congress made the archivist's term indefinite.
Weinstein personifies many of the problems of secrecy in Washington today: His record on access to documents is bad. He has refused to release to other scholars his interviews and his copies of Soviet espionage documents. That violates the American Historical Association "Statement on Standards" -- as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, head of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a Republican, noted in Weinstein's confirmation hearing last July. It's almost as if the people at the White House said, "Here's a historian who has stonewalled requests for access to his own documents for 25 years -- he's our kind of guy."
Secrecy is an issue now because, in 2001, President Bush issued a new executive order governing presidential records. Now the president has the right to veto the release of presidential papers ordered by the National Archives under the 12-year rule, even if they have passed the declassification review. Former presidents have also been given the right to veto release of documents, as do the family and heirs of former presidents. Weinstein told the Senate committee that, if confirmed, he would go to court to defend the Bush order on withholding presidential papers.
In the fight at the National Archives between democracy and secrecy, right now secrecy is winning.
X Jon Wiener is the author of "Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower" and a writer for the History News Service. He is also a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine.