Five years ago, President George W. Bush left the White House, headed for greener pastures in Dallas and Crawford.
Today, on that five year anniversary, countless official documents from his tenure — from executive orders to speeches to presidential meeting schedules — are now available to the public upon request.
“It is important when documents like these are released,” said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor specializing in presidential studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
This opens up to the public documents on historic moments such as 9-11, the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Afghanistan, even the 2008 financial crisis, which prompted Bush to begin economic programs to help the public.
For five years after a president leaves office, the bulk of the documents generated during his time in office remain private as archivists process and ready materials for research and public use in general.
Once the five years is up, as it is for Bush today, researchers, citizens, journalists — anyone who is interested — may file a Freedom of Information Act request for any presidential record that interests them.
Presidential library staffers and archivists will review the requests and release as much as they are legally required to provide.
“All records will have to undergo a line-by-line review,” said Alan Lowe, director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. “Archivists will apply Presidential Records Act restrictions and Freedom of Information Act exemptions to the records, redacting or withholding any information that cannot be released at this time.
“Examples of information that cannot be released include confidential advice to the President, classified national security information, information that is withheld under a federal statute, personal privacy information, or law enforcement information.”
Researchers last year, as the Bush presidential center opened to the public May 1, released about 200,000 pages of presidential records.
That was just a fraction of the presidential data — that includes about 80 terabytes of electronic records, as many as 70 million pages of records, more than 4 million photos and more than 200 million emails — stored at the presidential facility.
Information released at the time was on topics ranging from the ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative to natural disasters.
“We believed it was important to open a segment of records on this, our opening day,” Brook Clement, a supervisory archivist with the library and museum, said at the time. “But this is just the beginning.”
Now, staffers at the Bush presidential center can accept FOI requests for information.
“This is a process with many steps and laws,” Lowe said. “That being said, records will not be instantly available to the public. We have a review and notification process required by law. Whenever possible, we will notify researchers of records that are already open and then we will review the remaining records as quickly as possible.”
As the requests come in, they will be put in order based on the time and date they were received.
“Almost our entire archival staff will be working on the FOIA requests,” Lowe said. “We have teams for electronic records, textual records, and audiovisual records.
“They must conduct a ‘reasonable search’ and locate potentially responsive records, conduct a line-by-line review, and make any necessary redactions or withdrawals,” he said. “The records will then need to go through a notification process before being opened to the public.”