from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
November 6, 2001


A new executive order could make it substantially more difficult for the public to gain access to historically valuable presidential records by requiring the consent of both the incumbent President and the former President whose Administration generated the records.

Earlier this year, the White House had blocked release of records from the Reagan Administration that were supposed to have become public under the Presidential Records Act.

Now the new executive order 13233, signed November 1, will significantly increase the obstacles to disclosure of such records, since it allows either the current President or the former President -- or even the former President's family after his death -- to veto disclosure.

The new order replaces the 1989 executive order 12667, which also permitted a former President to request that records be withheld, but reserved to the incumbent President the right to decide whether or not to honor that request.

It should be noted that the new restrictions will apply only to unclassified information, since classified records are exempt from disclosure anyway, as are a myriad of other categories of information that are protected by statute.

Since classified, privacy, proprietary and other forms of information are already off the table, the new executive order invites the suspicion that it is intended to shield embarrassing information, a category for which an explicit exemption does not exist.

But the actual import of the new order will not be fully clear until it is applied in the months to come to the Reagan records which still await processing.

The new executive order 13233 is posted here:

The order was the subject of a rather testy exchange at the White House press briefing on November 1. See:

"I don't see this as anything other than setting a set of procedures that I believe is fair and reasonable," President Bush said at a press availability on November 2:

Others disagree. "This decree is not about protecting troops or homeland security," the Los Angeles Times editorialized today. "Rather, the administration's sweeping refusal to release any documents from the Reagan era suggests a secrecy fetish." See:

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Efficiency will hold a hearing on presidential records today.


A coalition of civil liberties and other groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request last week calling upon the Justice Department to disclose information concerning the identities and status of the more than 1,000 individuals who were arrested or detained in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"While certain aspects of the FBI investigation into the terrorist attacks need to be secret, we do not live in a country where the government can keep secret who they arrest, where they are being held, or the charges against them," said Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies (CNSS), who prepared the request.

The October 29 FOIA request seeking disclosure of the information is posted here:

An independent analysis by the Washington Post identified 235 of the detainees and described the circumstances and purpose of their detention. See the November 4 article "A Deliberate Strategy of Disruption":

Meanwhile, CNSS reports that the Justice Department has agreed to expedite the pending FOIA request under the provision relating to "matters of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exist possible questions about the government's integrity which affect public confidence."


The Bush Administration has inaugurated a new series of Presidential Directives, designated Homeland Security Presidential Directives, or HSPDs, that will "record and communicate presidential decisions about the homeland security policies of the United States."

Though other Presidential Directives are almost reflexively withheld from disclosure, and released grudgingly if at all, the first two HSPDs were published last week without hesitation, although only in softcopy format. See:


Toward the end of World War II, a young Jewish survivor named Marcel Reich found himself working as a military censor for the Polish army searching the mail for suspicious communications. As he recently recalled:

Dark formulations, calling for the censor, were found with particular frequency in the letters of female members of the army. For instance: "My Red Indian isn't coming" or "I am very worried because there is no sign of the Chinese" or "All my efforts are in vain. Have you no idea how to get the thing moving?" After much effort the mystery was solved: these letters always concerned a missed period. Anyone might have thought that the greatest secret of the Polish army was menstruation.

What I learned then was that institutions surrounded by a halo of secrecy owe their reputation to the legends spread about them or to those which they themselves have launched. Once one comes to know them from the inside they are invariably disappointing.... I soon came to the conclusion that censorship work was not only stupid and boring but also totally unnecessary.

These observations appear in the book The Author of Himself by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, newly translated from the German (p. 218). It is a memoir of Reich's boyhood in Berlin, his wartime experiences in the Warsaw ghetto (where as a music critic he once reviewed a performance by a young ghetto violinist named Edgar Aftergut) through his professional ascent to become perhaps the preeminent literary critic in Germany today.

Rich in anecdote and high literary gossip, the book will appeal to those with an affinity for German literature or an interest in the fateful encounter of Germans and Jews. See:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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