Monday, December 22, 2008

Laws? What Laws?

While Vice President Dick Cheney has been making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows, praising the expansion of the executive branch of government under the guise of protecting the country, some interesting things have taken place in the ongoing battle for executive documents.

First, a federal judge has sentenced a former archivist at the Mariners' Museum, America's Maritime Museum, in Newport News, Virginia to four years in federal prison for stealing and selling documents. The archivist, Lester F. Weber, sold an estimated 3,500 items on eBay, bringing in approximately $172,357 over four years. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, in the sentencing phase, noted that Weber had "broke the trust of the public" and that he, the public and the government have a responsibility to preserving historical artifacts. Interesting the a man seeking to profit from the sale of historically important documents, such as original lawsuits filed against the RMS Titanic company, would receive prison time, but an entire branch of government seeking to destroy the public record of their war crimes is shielded by executive privilege. Where is the justice in this?

Vice President Cheney is claiming that he has the authority to decide which of his own records as vice president will be handed over to the National Archives and Records Administration when he leaves office. His baseless claims of authority are in addition to President Bush's policies affirmed by Executive Order 13233 that protect the executive branch's records from the prying eyes of the public. Cheney is being sued by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a federal judge actually had to issue an order that Cheney retain all of his records until a decision is handed down in that case.

Perhaps the scariest of realizations in Cheney's recent statements is that neither he nor President Bush are completely ignorant of the 1978 Presidential Records Act. One or both of them understand the historical importance of the Act and why it was passed. Cheney may even hold an intimate knowledge of the Act as he was employed by the White House when it was enacted. He was in Washington as the records of former director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover's records were destroyed upon his death by his loyal secretary. As if the public trust hadn't been irreversibly damaged and eroded by the Nixon administration and Watergate. Should Cheney be held at a higher level of accountability because he was witness to this devastating events in American history? Yes. Will he be? No, at least not the extent that the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the American Historical Association, American Libraries Association or the Society of American Archivists would like him to be.

Where Cheney and Bush are claiming their actions and the documentation of those actions should be protected at the price of national security, they seem to be forgetting this argument was used once before in a little ole case called New York Times v United States and it didn't work out how the White House would have liked, despite a Court much less predictable than the Court carefully aligned by President Bush.

While Cheney claims he is above the law and a former archivist gets four years in prison, the Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, has resigned. His resignation, for health reasons associated with his ongoing battle against Parkinson's Disease, brings with it a certain amount of instability in the direction of the National Archives as well as the question of what President-elect Obama's intentions are in regard to Executive Order 13233 and his eventual appointment of an archivist to replace Weinstein (the Archivist of the United States is a political appointment despite his/her non-political role).

Making the rounds on the Sunday talk shows, praising the decisions of your president and partner-in-crime does not endear you to the American public, Mr. Cheney, anymore than breaking the law and hiding historical record of that fact does.

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