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Lawsuit Prompts White House to Release Reagan-Bush Records

July 19, 2002

Lawsuit Prompts White House to Release Reagan-Bush Records

Unlawful Delay Prompted Challenge; Other Records Are Still Being Withheld

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? The White House has approved the release of records of former President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President George H.W. Bush ? records that were required by law to be released more than a year ago. The delay in releasing the records, as well as an unlawful executive order that purports to authorize the delay, was challenged by Public Citizen and a coalition of other groups in federal district court here. The Justice Department notified the Public Citizen Litigation Group of the White House?s decision in a letter today. Although the lawsuit spurred the release, other documents, including about 1,600 pages about which former President Reagan’s representatives have expressed unknown “concerns,” remain under wraps.

The records to be released include approximately 150 pages of Reagan documents, the last of a group of about 68,000 pages of records that were supposed to be released in January 2001 under the Presidential Records Act, which governs access to records of former presidents and vice presidents. Most of the 150 pages, which the lawsuit?s plaintiffs have not yet seen, are believed to consist of memoranda concerning Supreme Court appointments and other presidential appointments to federal office.

The Bush White House blocked release of the Reagan records in early 2001 and then issued an executive order in November 2001 that claimed to give former presidents and vice presidents, as well as the incumbent president, the power to veto the release of records by claiming “executive privilege.” After Public Citizen and a coalition of historians and journalists filed a lawsuit in December challenging the executive order, the White House approved release of most of the 68,000 pages of Reagan records in March, but 150 pages that were considered especially sensitive were held back for further review, which resulted in another four months of delay in their release.

“The disclosure that the White House has finally decided to release these documents is a clear indication that they realize they can?t make a claim of ?executive privilege? stick so many years after President Reagan left office,” said Public Citizen attorney Scott L. Nelson. “And with the pressure of a lawsuit, they also knew they couldn?t keep stalling indefinitely on the pretext that they were still ?reviewing? the documents.”

Nelson added that he expects the government now to argue that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Reagan documents will soon be released. “The White House desperately wants to avoid having a court decide whether its executive order is lawful, so it has made every effort to dodge the issue,” he said. “But the government is continuing to implement the executive order and is using it to hold up release of other documents, so the legal challenge to the order remains a live issue.”

In particular, Public Citizen has recently learned that there are another 1,654 pages of Reagan records, whose existence was not previously disclosed by the National Archives, that were supposed to be released in January 2001. But the Archives, apparently in deference to “concerns” expressed about the documents by Reagan?s representatives, did not include them with the 68,000 pages that initially gave rise to the executive order and the litigation.

Only after Public Citizen raised questions about the handling of the additional 1,654 pages did the Archives belatedly notify the White House and Reagan in June that it intended to release them. The release of those documents, the contents of which are completely unknown, is currently being held up pending review by the former president?s staff and the White House under the executive order.

The White House decision today also authorizes the release of about 40 pages of records of former Vice President Bush. Those pages, which were not part of the 68,000 pages of Reagan records, were among 884 pages of Bush vice presidential documents that were supposed to be released under the Presidential Records Act in January 2001. They, too, were held back until Public Citizen raised questions about their status. In June, 844 pages were released, but 40 pages remained under review pursuant to the executive order. Like the 150 pages of Reagan documents whose release has just been authorized, the 40 pages of Bush documents are said by the Archives to relate to appointments to federal office. So in all, the government plans to release 190 pages.

“Prying these documents loose has been like pulling teeth,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “We intend to keep fighting to overturn President Bush?s illegal executive order on presidential records so that the unimpeded public access that the Presidential Records Act was designed to bring about is a reality.”