Could Obama’s Executive Order Help Pry Loose Bush Records?

January 21, 2009 12:57 pm

Over at TPM, Josh and David have been mulling the significance of the executive order, issued today by President Obama, concerning the Presidential Records Act. Could it apply retroactively to previous administrations, making it easier to pry loose records that the Bush White House has fought to keep secret?

According to Anne Weismann, a lawyer for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the tentative answer is yes.

As David notes, the order says:

Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law.

As a result, Weismann told TPMmuckraker, the order could affect any case in which the White House has claimed executive privilege over presidential (or, to be clear, vice presidential) records. Most important, it would subject those claims to review by the Justice Department. “It does have the potential to impact ongoing litigation,” she said.

Weismann specifically cited the ongoing legal fight between the House Judiciary committee and the Bush White House, over documents relating to the US Attorney firings. Among other documents, Congress has been seeking a key memo written by a White House counsel, which might shed light on White House involvement in the firings.

Weismann told TPMmuckraker that that the order likely would not affect a lawsuit she had been working on, on behalf of CREW, which sought to compel Dick Cheney’s office to hand over all his records to the National Archives. On Monday a judge declined to order Cheney to do so. Weismann said that case turned on an interpretation of the Presidential Records Act itself, rather than on a claim of executive privilege.

Still, it certainly seems possible that on his first full day in office, the new president has dealt significant a blow to the Bush administration’s efforts to permanently keep information from the public. But a lot more questions than answers remain, and we’ve got calls out to some experts in executive privilege who might be able to shed further light on what Obama’s order does and doesn’t do.

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