A recent directive by President Bush severely restricts access to presidential records. It allows a sitting president to declare archives of past presidents "privileged," and thus inaccessible to the public, even if the former president disagrees.
The White House says sitting presidents are better positioned to determine national security issues. Historians say the move would eviscerate access to presidential archival material, greatly hampering those who study presidential decisions.
Balancing national security with access to government records has a long history. Rules such as the Presidential Records Act of 1978 already address the issue. That law sets a 12-year waiting period before releasing papers relating to communications between a president and his policy advisers, and a 25-year waiting period with regard to papers deemed linked to matters of national security. The Bush order adds the requirement that members of the public show a "demonstrated, specific need" to gain such access. That's entirely too restrictive. Public figures and public access to them, should, for the most part, go hand in hand.
Legal challenges to the Bush order are expected. But the process could take years and Congress may need to take up the matter. At a time when the public is being asked to give up at least some civil liberties for safety, every effort should be made by government to promote openness as much as possible in its operations.