Obama moves to open presidential records

posted at 10:19 am on January 22, 2009 by Ed Morrissey

On Inauguration Day, I promised to offer praise for Barack Obama when he pursued good policy, and it didn’t take long.  Yesterday, Obama issued an executive order rolling back executive privilege on White House records, ensuring more openness not only for his administration but for those preceding it:

President Barack Obama, in his first full day in office, revoked a controversial executive order signed by President Bush in 2001 that limited release of former presidents’ records.

The new order could expand public access to records of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the years to come as well as other past leaders, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. …

Under Bush’s order, former presidents had broad ability to claim executive privilege and could designate others including family members who survive them to exercise executive privilege on their behalf.

Obama’s new order gives ex-presidents less leeway to withhold records, Aftergood said, and takes away the ability of presidents’ survivors to designate that privilege.

Separately, an Obama memorandum issued Wednesday also appears to effectively rescind a 2001 memo by President Bush’s then-Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft giving agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests.

Obama’s one significant legislative accomplishment came when he partnered with Tom Coburn to force the federal government to create a searchable database of the federal budget.  This follows that effort at openness, and it couldn’t come at a better time.  When the federal government begins to see itself as a guarantor of private industry and throws tons of money at every wailing mouth, we need to have access to the records of how those decisions get made, both in the White House and throughout the bureaucracy.  This executive order will facilitate that.

I believe in executive privilege for presidents to work effectively with their advisors, but the Bush administration made a big mistake with these two orders.  Government belongs to the people, and it should be as open and accountable as possible.  Only national security should keep the internal workings of our government from the eyes of the people who give it its power, or eventually we will become its slaves instead of its master.  Extending executive privilege beyond death was particularly senseless, as no one elected family members to make decisions about what can and cannot be available for review by citizens.

So far, I’m mostly unimpressed with Barack Obama, but this much he got right.

Update: Some interesting arguments in the comments, but this one puzzles me:

Of course it won’t do any such thing. The purpose of confidential records is not just to allow you to be secretly naughty; it’s to ensure that you’re not afraid to document things.

Well, if no one can see the documents, they don’t do anyone much good, do they? I’d rather have access to somewhat fewer records than never see a pile of them.

Besides, the nature of government is to produce massive amounts of documentation as a CYA.  The more a bureaucracy grows, the more documents it produces and the more complete it gets.  One of the more interesting aspects of the Nazi regime was how well they documented their own crimes, which surprised historians.  They had to do so, though, in order to ensure that they met the goals of their bosses.  (And no, I’m not comparing Obama to the Nazis.)

We’re going to have plenty to criticize about the Obama administration, but this one he got right.  In a period of time when one party controls Washington, we need all the sunlight we can get.


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Of course it won’t do any such thing. The purpose of confidential records is not just to allow you to be secretly naughty; it’s to ensure that you’re not afraid to document things.

Well, if no one can see the documents, they don’t do anyone much good, do they? I’d rather have access to somewhat fewer records than never see a pile of them

Ed, I am not sure why this poster’s comment puzzled you.

Some one can see the documents — the people who need to because they are employed by the organization.

It’s pretty standard operating procedure in many lines of work that some things are put in writing and some things are not — nothing nefarious about that. What goes in writing is sometimes dictated by who might have the right to access those files.

Here’s an example. A fundraiser for a charitable organization learns through conversations that an donor has a health issue that may impact that person’s future philanthropic plans. If someone pulled those files, there would be a HIPAA violation.

I don’t have strong feelings about this executive privilege thing, but given Obama’s willingness to (and aptitude for) skirting best practices on fundraising and donor records — and in light of how tense he gets when asked even simple questions — I am not particularly impressed that this means anything about his administration’s openness.

But it will give the BDS sufferers a chance to try to do further damage to the Republicans by poking through a bunch of old files, apparently.

Y-not on January 22, 2009 at 12:25 PM

Bill Clinton has got to be sweating bullets. Let’s rummage through his stuff.

Jim62sch on January 22, 2009 at 12:29 PM

To be clear in my example — health information is never put into a donor file.

Y-not on January 22, 2009 at 12:29 PM

Bill Clinton has got to be sweating bullets. Let’s rummage through his stuff.

Maybe now we’ll know what REALLY happened to Vince Foster.

nazo311 on January 22, 2009 at 12:33 PM

Bill Clinton has got to be sweating bullets. Let’s rummage through his stuff.

Jim62sch on January 22, 2009 at 12:29 PM

The law doesn’t cover documents stuffed in the underwear of a President’s National Security Advisor.

Clinton. Disgrace.

jeff_from_mpls on January 22, 2009 at 12:33 PM

We’re going to have plenty to criticize about the Obama administration, but this one he got right. In a period of time when one party controls Washington, we need all the sunlight we can get.

Bull Sh!t. this was done to dredge dirt on the Bush admin. It will be closed up again before The One leaves office. I see more and more people are drinking the Kool-Aid and seeing the unicorns and rainbows. The cult is spreading….

R D on January 22, 2009 at 12:34 PM

Bye Ed- I can’t take the Obama love any longer.

ExTex on January 22, 2009 at 12:02 PM

Funny how Ed went from being known for helping bring down the Liberal Government in Canada to outright supporting a Communist Regime in the US. Irony doesn’t even begin to cover it.

RickZ on January 22, 2009 at 12:35 PM

Leave Ed Alone!

jeff_from_mpls on January 22, 2009 at 12:36 PM

Yet, Obama destroyed all his documents from his stint as a state senator.

ihasurnominashun on January 22, 2009 at 12:36 PM

Obama’s one significant legislative accomplishment came when he partnered with Tom Coburn to force the federal government to create a searchable database of the federal budget.

Now if only we could search his donors’ list. And that gives you an idea about how much of his Administration’s workings will be scrutinized.

andycanuck on January 22, 2009 at 12:47 PM

Bye Ed- I can’t take the Obama love any longer.

ExTex on January 22, 2009 at 12:02 PM

I don’t blame you. This used to be a fairly conservative site. Now that Alla P is top dog, I guess Ed will just fall in line and the Obama slobbering will continue. Along with the Palin bashing. Michelle must have just handed over the keys to this candy store to the kids.

R D on January 22, 2009 at 12:47 PM

I don’t care, I have disdain for The One. What happened here? This should be interesting though. The dirt about so many politicians, such as Clinton’s. Telling you, he hates the Clinton’s and appointed her for the time being. He knows what he is doing. But, what about his records? Ah, I see only the Dems. see race. But they accuse us Conservatives of being racist. This don’t sound good unless it is equal. He should do the same.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 12:53 PM

Nice move, but finding those presidential records outside of normal WH infrastructure may prove to be very tough. There is a story on Drudge this AM about how the new WH wrecking crew considers the White House in the Dark Ages
  
So investigators will have to use their imaginations and subpoena facebook and twitter records as well as normal WH communications??
  
They especially seem to be objecting to ‘no outside email logins’ which seems like a great security measure for public servants to me.
  
As we would expect from an administration of this character, they are accompanying their vaunted ‘openness’ with lots of new places to hide things and new communications channels that may escape scrutiny.

ElRonaldo on January 22, 2009 at 12:53 PM

Ed is making a point damn it! Why don’t some of you grow up for Christ sake! Ed, I understand what you were saying. I respect that. You are looking at both sides, which we have to at this point. We have no choice. If we are going to make changes people, we cannot see things as being two faced.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 12:55 PM

Now if only we could search his donors’ list. And that gives you an idea about how much of his Administration’s workings will be scrutinized.

andycanuck on January 22, 2009 at 12:47 PM

I think they have destroyed much of the records that they did have and, of course, they never collected information on a lot of their donors.

I still think a good lawyer could nail Obama’s campaign under Sarbanes-Oxley.

Y-not on January 22, 2009 at 12:56 PM

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 12:53 PM

And the point is, we should all be appeasers. I don’t think so.

R D on January 22, 2009 at 1:02 PM

And the point is, we should all be appeasers. I don’t think so.

R D on January 22, 2009 at 1:02 PM

Retard, that is not what I meant idiot. Your to stupid to explain. I will be damned if I will be an appeaser. Your brain can’t compute.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:04 PM

The One is doing this for a reason. Will be interesting to see what he will do or how he will take this. His true colors will emerge and it won’t be pretty.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:05 PM

You are looking at both sides, which we have to at this point. We have no choice. If we are going to make changes people, we cannot see things as being two faced.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 12:55 PM

Oh, you mean Obama didn’t sell himself to you as a two-faced sonuvabitch? Gee, you are sooooo enlightened. I’ll continue to view Obama as a corrupt commie from Chicago, thank you very much. And that’s the only face of this skank in the Oval Office that matters.

RickZ on January 22, 2009 at 1:11 PM

Retard, that is not what I meant idiot. Your to stupid to explain. I will be damned if I will be an appeaser. Your brain can’t compute.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:04 PM

Ohhh, name calling. Always the sign of intelligent conversation. Put some ointment on it honey, it’ll be alright.

R D on January 22, 2009 at 1:15 PM

This is a Really Interesting Development. If he applies a double standard to Clinton records, he’ll come out smelling like something I scraped from my shoe in a barnyard.

ElectricPhase on January 22, 2009 at 1:17 PM

I’ll believe it when I see it actually take effect.
Perhaps now nothing will be truly documented. I am skeptical.

I do not think this will change anything, other than perhaps being able to finally find out what REALLY happened during the Clinton admin.

Badger40 on January 22, 2009 at 1:35 PM

Oh, you mean Obama didn’t sell himself to you as a two-faced sonuvabitch? Gee, you are sooooo enlightened. I’ll continue to view Obama as a corrupt commie from Chicago, thank you very much. And that’s the only face of this skank in the Oval Office that matters.

RickZ on January 22, 2009 at 1:11 PM

I loath the ground he walks on. He is a SOB. You didn’t read my other post then. I feel same way you feel. Exactly!

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:36 PM

Oh, you mean Obama didn’t sell himself to you as a two-faced sonuvabitch? Gee, you are sooooo enlightened. I’ll continue to view Obama as a corrupt commie from Chicago, thank you very much. And that’s the only face of this skank in the Oval Office that matters.

RickZ on January 22, 2009 at 1:11 PM

He can’t sell me shi*. I loath that SOB. He is a commie skank. Matter of fact, that is to nice for him. It is good that we have this place to find out what is going on. If that SOB don’t take this away soon from us.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:38 PM

Someone I was discussing this with made an EXCELLENT observation: This is being done as a means to ease the masses into accepting MORE GOVENMENT CONTROL. I mean, they are going to tell us everything they are doing, right? So lets go ahead and give them more control.

Lambs to slaughter

ihasurnominashun on January 22, 2009 at 1:38 PM

Oh, you mean Obama didn’t sell himself to you as a two-faced sonuvabitch? Gee, you are sooooo enlightened. I’ll continue to view Obama as a corrupt commie from Chicago, thank you very much. And that’s the only face of this skank in the Oval Office that matters.

RickZ on January 22, 2009 at 1:11 PM

You got that right. He is a SOB, and I loath him like I never loathed anyone. He is a skank, and it is hard to believe he did get in there.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:40 PM

Something is up with the server. I put that comment in about five minutes ago. Then when it didn’t show, I wrote another. Sorry about the double posts.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:41 PM

Someone I was discussing this with made an EXCELLENT observation: This is being done as a means to ease the masses into accepting MORE GOVENMENT CONTROL. I mean, they are going to tell us everything they are doing, right? So lets go ahead and give them more control.

Lambs to slaughter

ihasurnominashun on January 22, 2009 at 1:38 PM

That is true. We are close to the slaughter house.

sheebe on January 22, 2009 at 1:42 PM

Bull Sh!t. this was done to dredge dirt on the Bush admin. It will be closed up again before The One leaves office. I see more and more people are drinking the Kool-Aid and seeing the unicorns and rainbows. The cult is spreading….

R D on January 22, 2009 at 12:34 PM

This is exactly right and I hope President Bush and the key members of his Administration fight him to the death for the right to keep their private papers private.

Jenfidel on January 22, 2009 at 2:12 PM

I admire Obama’s sudden wish for openness. He could now open up with his understanding of the Chicago political corruption machine and how he fought it. He could open a list of his political donors. He could be open about his relationship with terrorists, and what he expected to achieve.

Now that he is elected, what could it hurt?

trl on January 22, 2009 at 2:22 PM

I am waiting for when the requests come in
one for PResident Bush
one for President Clinton

How much you are you willing to be that
The bush request is approved
and the clinton request is DENIED..

I will bet you right now 10 dollars..
that this is purely a political move to satisfy all the liberals who want our president ARRESTED for the CRIME
of actually daring to WIN in Iraq when EVERY liberal
was CRYING BEGGING to surrender..

jcila on January 22, 2009 at 2:42 PM

I share Y-not’s skepticism. This will probably mean that less official documenting is going to be done. Question: does this mean we can get Freedom of Information Act access to Obama team contacts with Blago? Highly doubt it.

Mark30339 on January 22, 2009 at 2:45 PM

He will change his mind when his term(s) end. This is not for historians, rather, it is to allow a fishing expedition for the famous witch fish from the Bush administration.

rlwo2008 on January 22, 2009 at 3:05 PM

Sorry Ed, but candor is critical to Presidential decision making. You bring too much sunlight and the advisors will be afraid to take any position other than what the polls advocate. If sunlight is so great than why have any classified or privileged documents at all? Throw everything in the open military intelligence, civilian intelligence, etc., cause the public has the right to know everything.

eaglewingz08 on January 22, 2009 at 3:11 PM

If W et al. have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear from this change in policy.

Also interesting to note all the whining about Clinton in light of the recent complaints about Bush criticism extending beyond his time in office.

benny shakar on January 22, 2009 at 3:50 PM

Sandy Burglar has been advising Pres. Obama didn’t you hear? He already confirmed to him that he shoved all Clinton’s bad docs down his pants and into the nearest shredder. You won’t see any more light on the Clintons than you do right now. As Aerosmith sings, “Dream On”.

Sultry Beauty on January 22, 2009 at 4:14 PM

So this is the first thing Obama takes care of. You know the guy we know relatively nothing about and hasn’t released any of his own records to the public prior to being president! Seriously, how can anyone think this is a ‘great’ start? Talk about naive, what happened to Ed ? I guess everyone is entitled to there opinion.

I don’t see what is so great about this except the obvious, which is to dig up dirt on Bush. Look at it this way, there will be plenty on Bush, simply because he thought the executive privilege. Obama is a aware of this and just won’t document anything controversial in his term, but there is probably a sh*tload for Bush! Yipppeee!

Indy928 on January 22, 2009 at 4:38 PM

Uh folks, did you BOTHER reading the executive order? Obama pulled a swift one on you, he didn’t open Freedom of Information on HIS administration, he opened Freedom of Information on the PRIOR, Bush administration.
Folks really need to start watching Obama’s slight of hand in his game of three-card monte.

nelsonknows on January 22, 2009 at 5:19 PM

Will this order be applied to Democrats the same way it will be applied to Republicans?

SheofTwoMinds on January 22, 2009 at 6:29 PM

You’re soo naive Morrissey!

Obama will open up these documents as a way to criticize and condemn the BUSH administration only – not the Clinton administration’s or anyone else’s – and then Obama will create a NEW WAY to hide his administrations’s documents.

All it takes is the ability to INVENT SOMETHING NEW in order to do whatever he wants. He can do the same thing, just under a different name.

TheMightyQuinn on January 22, 2009 at 7:00 PM

Funny this from the man who didn’t bother keeping his Illinois Senate records — wonder if he will be able to get away with the same line about not being able to afford the staff for record keeping.

LifeTrek on January 22, 2009 at 8:39 PM

Well, if no one can see the documents, they don’t do anyone much good, do they? I’d rather have access to somewhat fewer records than never see a pile of them.

A President and his staff are not “no one,” and a document need not be for everyone in order to be for someone. But this matter involves more than a mere question as to whether something comes to be documented. It involves a question as to whether delicate matters are adequately discussed in the first place. The ability to make a credible offer of confidentiality encourages frankness on the part of persons called on to advise the President.

Kralizec on January 23, 2009 at 12:52 AM

Meaningless but ominious sounding crap like this is why Republicans are made fun of in popular culture.

Speedwagon82 on January 22, 2009 at 11:16 AM

Because avoiding ridicule from the pop-culturalists is the most important thing in the world. After all pop-cult(ural)ists are so knowledgeable about such things!

baldilocks on January 23, 2009 at 4:49 PM

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