SAA responds to Executive Order 13233 on Presidential Papers

See also: Call to Action on Executive Order 13233

November 6, 2001

Representative Stephen Horn
Chairman, Subcommittee on Government Efficiency
2154 Rayburn Office Building
Washington, D.C.

Via facsimile transmission: (202) 225-2373

I write to express the grave concern of the Society of American Archivists with respect to the President’s recent Executive Order 13233 on Presidential Papers. Founded in 1936, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) is North America's oldest and largest national archival professional association. SAA's mission is to serve the educational and informational needs of more than 3,400 individual and institutional members and to provide leadership to ensure the identification, preservation, and use of records of historical value.

Our apprehension over this Executive Order is on several levels. First, it violates both the spirit and letter of existing U.S. law on access to presidential papers as clearly laid down in 44 U.S.C. 2201-2207. This law establishes the principle that presidential records are the property of the United States government and that the management and custody of, as well as access to, such records should be governed by the Archivist of the United States and established archival principles—all within the statutory framework of the act itself. The Executive Order puts the responsibility for these decisions with the President, and indeed with any sitting President into the future. Access to the vital historical records of this nation should not be governed by executive decree; this is why the existing law was created.

Second, on a broader level this Executive Order potentially threatens to undermine one of the very foundations of our nation. Free and open access to information is the cornerstone to modern democratic societies around the world. For such access to be curtailed or abrogated by an executive process not subject to public or legislative review or scrutiny would violate the principles upon which our nation was founded—all the more troubling at a time when we should be holding the beacon of freedom higher than ever.

Finally, we would urge Congress to reassert its authority in these matters. While present law establishes important principles with respect to presidential papers and their management and care which certainly appear to need reaffirming, it is entirely possible that the law may need some fine-tuning, and that minor revisions may satisfy the concerns that motivated the White House in this Executive Order. For example, it may be that revising the law to modify the length of time during which Presidential papers are restricted will serve to protect legitimate national security and executive privilege concerns while still ensuring that the American people have certain and timely access to the records of their Chief Executive. This is only to suggest that some compromises may be possible. We would be happy to consult with and otherwise assist your subcommittee and other relevant bodies within Congress in developing new and workable legislation that is consistent with open access to information.

Once again, let me stress our professional concern over the most recent Executive Order. Not only does it challenge and abrogate existing statutory authority, it has the potential to seriously restrict the unfettered flow of information upon which our nation depends. I would strongly urge Congress to take immediate action to overturn this action.

Thank you. We look forward to working with you and your colleagues in resolving this matter.


Steve Hensen

Society of American Archivists