In 1974, Congress passed legislation placing the presidential records of Richard Nixon in federal custody to prevent their destruction. The legislative action was intended to reduce secrecy, while allowing historians to perform their responsibilities. In 1972, decades of official and unofficial Federal Bureau of Investigation records had been destroyed, upon the death of J. Edgar Hoover, by his longtime secretary. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 expanded such protection of historical records, by mandating that the records of former presidents would automatically become the property of the federal government upon his leaving the Oval Office, and then transferred to the archivist of the United States, thereafter to be made available to the public after no more than 12 years.
Thus, the presidential papers of Ronald Reagan were due to be made public when George W. Bush took office in January 2001. However, in a White House memo dated March 23, 2001, the Counsel to the President conveyed the following to U.S Archivist John W. Carlin:
Section 2(b) of Executive Order 12667, issued by former President Ronald Reagan on January 16, 1989, requires the Archivist of the United States to delay release of Presidential records at the instruction of the current President. On behalf of the President, I instruct you to extend for 90 days (until June 21, 2001) the time in which President Bush may claim a constitutionally based privilege over the Presidential records that former President Reagan, acting under Section 2204(a) of Title 4, has protected from disclosure for the 12 years since the end of his Presidency. This directive applies as well to the Vice Presidential records of former Vice President George H.W. Bush.
This instruction was repeated on June 6, 2001, before the 90 days had elapsed, giving a new deadline of August 31, 2001. On the day of this deadline, Alberto Gonzales instructed the Archivist to wait a few additional weeks. On 1 November 2001, Bush issued Executive Order 13233, limiting the access to the records of former U.S. Presidents:
...reflecting military, diplomatic, or national security secrets, Presidential communications, legal advice, legal work, or the deliberative processes of the President and the President's advisers, and to do so in a manner consistent with the Supreme Court's decisions in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977), and other cases...