WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush issued an order Thursday night that lets past presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan, have as much say as incumbent presidents in keeping some of their White House papers private.
Advocates for government declassification said the executive order would usher in a new era of government secrecy. The White House says the order simply sets up a procedure for implementing the Presidential Records Act, giving former presidents more authority to claim executive privilege to withhold certain papers.
``History has shown that former presidents release virtually all of their documents and this executive order won't stand in the way of that,'' a White House official said.
Some 68,000 pages of Reagan's White House records, including the vice presidential papers from President Bush's father, were supposed to have been opened in January, 12 years after Reagan left office, as provided by law. But the White House delayed the release three times to review constitutional and legal questions.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales defended Bush's executive order Thursday, but did not say when or if the Reagan papers would be opened to the public.
Vanderbilt University historian Hugh Graham said the draft was a ``real monster,'' and complained, ``They would reverse an act of Congress with an executive order.'' Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, said it was ``blatantly unlawful top to bottom.'' He predicted a quick legal challenge.
The issue likely will come up at a hearing Tuesday by a House Government Reform Committee panel, initially scheduled before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Reagan's records were to have been the first released under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which followed Watergate and former President Nixon's attempts to hold on to his papers and tape recordings. It made presidential records the property of government, not ex-presidents.
Under the act, presidential records are to be released after 12 years, except for those withheld for national security or certain personal reasons specified by law. A former president can still claim executive privilege to prevent the release of certain documents, but a sitting president had the final say.
Under Bush's executive order, a sitting president could not override a claim of executive privilege made by a former president.
These claims of executive privilege, however, can be appealed in court, Gonzales said.
``It will not be driven by politics or what looks good, it will driven by what is allowed under the Constitution,'' Gonzales said. ``Look, we haven't withheld a single document yet. There's been a delay, no question about it, but there has been no decision not to release a document. Let's see how this process works.''
Some historians have suspected the Bush White House is worried about what the Reagan papers might reveal about officials now working for President Bush who also worked for Reagan. Among them are Secretary of State Colin Powell, Budget Director Mitch Daniels Jr. and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
Gonzales says that is not the reason.
``There may in fact be embarrassing documents,'' he said, but added that would not be considered a legitimate reason to withhold something.
Some historians suggest that the White House is using heightened public interest in national security as a screen for clamping down on the release of presidential papers.
Craig said the Bush White House might be worried that the war on terrorism may generate documents it would rather not see exposed down the road.
``Everybody is in agreement that materials that can be used by terrorists to threaten national security should be closed up,'' Craig said. ``There already are existing laws and exemptions that keep that kind of stuff closed up.
``This is about confidential information _ communication between a president and top people _ that they would simply prefer not to be released to the public.''