WASHINGTON - Archivists and historians are urging Southern Methodist University to reject the Bush presidential library unless the administration reverses an executive order that gives former presidents and their heirs the right to keep White House papers secret in perpetuity.
"If the Bush folks are going to play games with the records, no self-respecting academic institution should cooperate," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
The policy triggered outrage and a still-pending lawsuit when President Bush issued it about seven weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Now, as Southern Methodist University officials try to complete a deal for a Bush library, museum and policy institute, the Society of American Archivists plans a public relations offensive meant to pressure Congress and the university to force a change.
"Whether they like it or not, they have become a player in that discussion," said Mark Greene, president-elect of the archivists and director of the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center. "There's been no indication from the Bush administration that they have in any way rethought the executive order, and it is our hope that these negotiations provide a possible pivot point."
Southern Methodist University Vice President Brad Cheves said the university is well aware of the debate but is mindful that rules regarding release of presidential papers have evolved in the past 30 years. He said the university is taking the long view as it tries to land a facility that will stand "for generations to come as a storehouse of history."
"It's not realistic to expect one university to get an executive order signed. ... Public policy should be debated in the public square and the halls of Congress," he said.
Bush spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore noted that the National Archives has released more than 2 million pages since the new policy went into effect.
The Bush order is part of a string of laws and directives governing presidential records.
In 1974, Richard Nixon tried to seal and even destroy some of his papers. Congress blocked that and, four years later, it passed the Presidential Records Act to clarify that administration records belong to the public. It struck a balance by allowing a 12-year embargo and exemptions for national security and privacy.