True to its mania for secrecy, the Bush administration is leaving behind vast gaps in the most sensitive White House e-mail records, and with lawyers and public interest groups in hot pursuit of information that deserves to be part of the permanent historical record.
E-mail messages that have gone suspiciously missing are estimated to number in the millions. These could illuminate some of the administration’s darker moments, including the lead-up to the Iraq war, when intelligence was distorted, the destruction of videotapes of C.I.A. torture interrogations, and the vindictive outing of the C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
The deep-sixed history also includes improper business conducted by more than 50 White House appointees via e-mail at the Republican Party headquarters. Historians and archivists are suing the administration. We should be grateful for their efforts. Entire days of e-mail records have turned up conveniently blank at the offices of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Cheney, of course, retreats from sunshine with the wariness of Alucard; he is fighting to the last the transfer of his records to the National Archives, as required by law. He recently argued in court that he “alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records.” As in: L’etat c’est Dick.
Modern administrations from Ronald Reagan’s to Bill Clinton’s typically tried to evade at least some disclosure obligations under the public archives law. But the Bush team, from day one, has flouted the requirement to preserve a truthful record, ignoring repeated warnings from the National Archives. In government agencies, the public’s freedom-of-information rights have been maliciously hobbled.
The National Archives is further burdened by the steady and inevitable growth in digital records — a mass 50 times larger than that left eight years ago by the Clinton administration. It will take years to ingest before historians can truly get a handle on what is missing.
History is truly the poorer for the Bush administration. President-elect Barack Obama must quickly undo the damage by ordering that records be shielded from political interference, by repairing the freedom-of-information process, and by ending the abuse of the classification process to cloak the truths of the presidency.