Fri, Nov 09, 2001 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan needs a presidential papers act

By Hsueh Li-kuei 薛理桂

In President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) new book, The Premier Voyage of the Century (世紀首航), he pointed out that the National Security Council failed to hand over its confidential documents when the transition of political power took place. Why has such a problem occurred?

Taiwan's democracy is still young, so it's really not surprising that the transfer of documents and papers was problematic when the nation underwent its first change of ruling parties.

Take the US for example. During the early years, presidents usually took important documents when they left office. From George Washington to John Kennedy, outgoing presidents took away all documents -- including private letters, souvenirs and other materials -- when leaving the White House.

Due to a lack of legal restrictions, the Library of Congress had to pay a total of US$45,000 to buy a range of documents from Washington's descendants in two purchases. It was not until 1939 that Franklin Roosevelt established the nation's first presidential library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, on his own property in Hyde Park, New York -- in an effort to solve the ownership problem of presidential papers.

In 1955, the US Congress approved the Presidential Libraries Act and defined "presidential papers." According to the act, presidential papers are put in the custody of the White House chief of staff after a president leaves office. The act also states that after the papers are donated to a specific presidential library, established by privately-funded organizations, the building(s), land, documents and various materials of the library shall be turned over to the government for operation and maintenance.

All materials at the library are taken as important national documents. The presidential library system is administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, under the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Influenced by the Watergate scandal, the US Congress also passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1974 -- which stipulates that materials that belonged to former president Richard M. Nixon be turned over to NARA.

In addition to the above laws, the 1978 Presidential Records Act further governs the official records created or received by presidents, vice presidents, their immediate staff and administrative units whose function is to assist the president in the conduct activities "which relate to or have and effect upon the implementation of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the president." However, personal or non-government papers are not included, such as a president's personal diary and notes.

Taiwan should learn from the US experience. First, it should set up a "presidential documents and papers law" to regulate all papers, letters, documents, video and cassette tapes, souvenirs, seals and other items that have been entrusted to a president.

Next, it should establish a "presidential library law" in order to collect all presidential papers and preserve them at a presidential library. As for the supervision of the library, I suggest that the law clearly stipulate a national archives bureau as its super-visor. When a new president is elected, the bureau should assist the outgoing president with the handover presidential papers and documents to the presidential library.

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