Obama on Presidential Records and FOIA

On his first full day in office, January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama restored the protections of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Revoking George W. Bush's Executive Order 13233, Obama's new order also restores limits on who may claim executive privilege to block the release of executive office records to incumbent and living former presidents. EO 13233 had groundlessly expanded "executive privilege" to include Vice Presidents, and designated representatives of both living and deceased former presidents and vice presidents.

Bush's order was signed on November 1, 2001, and was an early indicator of the stifling secrecy and over-reaching claims of executive power that would characterize the next seven years. Led by prominent historians, a broad coalition of scholars, journalists, publishers, librarians, and First Amendment interest groups fought the Bush order in the courts of law and public opinion. While the former battles were hampered by issues of standing (all lawsuits had to be predicated on specific records that were being held back under the provisions of the order), public opinion remained on the side of public access to the records of our executive civil servants. Obama's early action on this matter is testament to its importance.

AAUP joined amici in supporting the lawsuits, and organized a brochure and book exhibit highlighting some of the American history impossible to write without guaranteed access to presidential records. The books included specialist studies of the policies of the Vietnam and Cold Wars, as well as popular biographies such as Robert Caro's award-winning and still-incomplete The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a projected four-volume life of the 36th president.

January 21, 2009, was in many ways a red-letter day for freedom of information. In addition to the Executive Order on Presidential Records, Obama issued a memorandum to executive departments and agencies regarding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The administration re-affirmed the democratic tenets of accountability and transparency, stating clearly: "In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

Obama Executive Order on Presidential Records: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/ExecutiveOrderPresidentialRecords/

Bush Executive Order 13233: http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2001/11/eo-pra.html

January 21, 2009 Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act: http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/foia/2009foia.mem.rel.pdf