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A lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks to block President Bush from implementing controls on the release of historical records that contain insights into White House decision-making. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, filed the suit in U.S. District Court, saying that if U.S. Archivist John Carlin follows the executive order Bush issued Nov. 1, he will violate the 1978 Presidential Records Act. “Bush’s executive order violates not only the spirit but the letter of the law,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “We will not stand by while the administration tramples on the people’s right to find out about their own government.” The National Archives has not had time to review the suit and did not have immediate comment, said spokeswoman Susan Cooper. The Presidential Records Act, which followed Watergate and Richard Nixon’s attempts to hold on to his papers and tape recordings, made presidential records the property of the government, not former presidents. Papers left by former President Reagan and former Vice President George H.W. Bush are the first governed by the act. Under the law, former presidents and vice presidents can restrict access to some of their records, including confidential communications with advisers, for up to 12 years. After that, most documents, except those, for instance, that invade personal privacy or jeopardize national security, must be made public. Bush’s order gives former presidents more authority to claim executive privilege to withhold certain papers because they contain military, diplomatic or national security secrets, communications among the president and his advisers or legal advice. While the White House counsel’s office was crafting the order, it delayed the release of 68,000 presidential papers left by Reagan and tens of thousands of other records left by former Vice President Bush. These papers, held up by the act for 12 years because they contained communications between the president or vice president and their advisers, were to be available to the public in January. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales says the order does not seek to restrict access to records, but merely sets up procedures that presidents can follow to claim a constitutionally based privilege for keeping some of their records sealed. Public Citizen attorney Scott L. Nelson said Bush’s order gives former presidents unfettered power to block the release of material simply by making a claim of privilege — even if it is unfounded. He says it also hampers public access to vice presidential records because it provides — for the first time — that a vice president may claim an executive privilege, which the National Archives is required by the executive order to honor. “This concept lacks any foundation in American constitutional law,” Nelson said. “It’s interesting that the first beneficiary of this new doctrine would be the father of the man who announced it.” Public Citizen filed the suit on behalf of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Security Archive, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and historians Hugh Davis Graham and Stanley I. Kutler. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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