Saturday, January 3, 2009

VP records and protecting the historical record

Over on the archives listserv, one of the more intrepid commenters (and a veteran of NARA from the Nixon era) has this to say about the Bush/Cheney records controversy:

In both the NYT and WT articles, historians and public interest officials say they are anxious or disturbed. You see this time and again in such articles. But no one ever offers any nonpartisan, practical advice on how to ease the anxiety (which Cheney's and Browner's statements point to) that officials might feel about their "paper" trails. Nor has anyone taken a hard look at the statutory requirements, what works, what doesn't, and why. As I've mentioned, nowadays, I lean toward sealing Presidential records for longer time periods in part to improve what is created and preserved and to reduce the fear factor.

I totally agree. While many of us (and I include myself when I say "us") would love to grab a bunch of records and indict the miscreants, that merely guarantees that no records will be kept in the first place. Dick Cheney may be an especially paranoid case, but he's not alone. If records are certain to bite you in your lifetime, then you have a strong disincentive to keep them. If you know that they can be kept sealed until after you're gone, or at least until you're long retired, then the fantasy of historical vindication will be a temptation to record your thoughts and actions more thoroughly.

What I'm interested in is learning if there are more surprises of the "Oh, we've been torturing?", "Oh, our phone lines are being tapped?", or "Oh, that data mining program that Congress refused to authorize is actually going on?" variety. You can conceal the discussions that led to certain discussions, but you can't hide the existence of programs and activities like these from the incoming administration. Once you actually start issuing orders to civil servants, records begin to accumulate and people Know Stuff (and once they no longer work for you, they might decide to Say Things).

This is going to get interesting. Even if there are no more revelations, that in itself would be interesting.

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