Maarja Krusten: The Bush Library Controversy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ms. Krusten is a historian and former National Archives Nixon tapes archivist.]

Some very lengthy observations on a rainy Saturday evening, drawn from the National Journal article (hidden from some readers of this blog behind a subscription wall) and from comments made by the Air Force historian about electronic recordkeeping. I will be interested to see if these stories about email spark additional interest in electronic recordkeeping among historians. There is plenty of food for thought, so I'll throw out some observations.

In her April 14, 2007 article, "Gonzalez on the Griddle," to which Froomkin refers, Alexis Sindlinger writes in the National Journal that in a speech in 2001, George W. Bush said "that he was worried about his private communications being preserved for history in the National Archives."

Ms. Sindlinger notes that soon after George W. Bush took office in 2001, he discovered that "the 1978 Presidential Records Act provided that purely political materials are deemed personal to a president and thus would not be subject to public disclosure through the Archives. It is the president who ultimately determines which political or private materials in the White House records, including e-mails, are released to the public."

She writes that Mr. Bush turned to Alberto Gonzales to provide guidance to staffers. "Gonzales also described the full range of executive powers available to Bush to comply with or resist requests to disclose White House information."

Ms. Sindlinger states that Mr. Gonzalez approved the use of RNC accounts and that Harriet Miers also was aware of them. An article in today's Washington Post states that White House staff were told in 2001 essentially what I suggested in a posting here on the Bush Library blog earlier this week about forwarding email:

"A memo [in February 2001] from then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales told staffers that if an e-mail that is a presidential record is received on a personal account, employees must 'ensure that it is preserved' by printing it or forwarding it to a White House account."

The Post adds of more recent guidance, "A new policy circulated by the White House this week for the first time specifies how those 22 staffers who have RNC e-mail accounts are supposed to handle messages that fall in a gray area. They have been told that if an employee is unsure whether the subject of an e-mail is official or political, the political e-mail account should be used - and the e-mail should be saved for review to comply with presidential records law. Staff members who have political e-mail accounts must now sign a statement saying they understand the rules and will abide by them."

Richard Nixon's records were seized in place and contained a mixture of political (personal) and governmental information. Federal archivists trained in history, such as I once was, had the job of deciding into which of the two categories written or recorded information in Nixon's records fell. Nixon's are the only records for which that responsibility rests with objective, nonpartisan archivists trained in history. (I happen to have voted for Nixon - and voted straight Republican throughout my career at NARA from 1976 to 1990 - but that never affected my work. NARA's employees typically hold graduate degrees in history and respect the integrity of the historical records with which they work.) So, only a handful of government employees outside the White House, I among them, ever have done this sort of work.

As Ms. Sindlinger points out, more recently, White House officials have been the ones who make determinations on the personal or official status of records while a President is in office. When an administration ends, the National Archives receives for its Presidential Libraries the records that have been deemed official or governmental.

If nothing else, the revelation of a dual email system may attract the attention of historians who do not seem to have given much thought either to the segregation process that is required in records due to a President's right to "private political association" or to electronic record keeping. I knew email usage eventually would become a big news story as soon as I saw the "It's Yahoo!, Baby" story in U.S. News & World Report in 2004. That story largely escaped the notice of historians, although I did mention it a year ago in a comment posted under Professor Michael H. Ebner's April 3, 2006 article, "The Romance of E-mail: Some Ground Rules," on the History News Network.

Perhaps the email stories, however they play out (I'm still in wait and see mode), will nudge historians to think more than they have about electronic recordkeeping, in general. Eduard Mark, the Air Force historian, has been one of the few people in the historical community to discuss electronic recordkeeping.

Dr. Mark and I exchanged some thoughts on H-net's H-Diplo in 2001. I wrote there in April 2001 that "offices largely have lost the buffer once represented by the secretary/file clerk, the neutral third party with no vested interest in the contents of records. Patrice McDermott of OMB Watch notes that widespread use of the personal computer means that individual officials now choose what to save or not save on their computers. But there are increasing disincentives for officials to create and preserve complete records of their activities." (I have written elsewhere that I have not resolved in my own mind how soon historical records should be opened to the public. As a creator and a user of federal records, and someone who has given a lot of thought to what I heard on the Nixon tapes, although an historian by training and profession, I understand the various perspectives, including those of White House employees.)

My comment about secretaries caught Dr. Mark's eye and he responded with a posting ( ) in which he expressed a number of concerns. Dr. Mark wrote that "I believe that we shall forever know more about the activities of the United States Government at the beginning of the Cold War than about what it was doing at the struggle's end. When the government's historians talk shop, a common topic is, "Whatever will our successors do several decades hence?"

By November 17, 2005, Dr. Mark was even more pessimistic in a posting on H-Diplo. . I had posted there a link to Richard Riley's article in the Washington Post in November 2005, "For History's Sake, Nothing Like a Paper Trail." Dr. Mark replied by providing additional perspective on electronic recordkeeping, not just in the White House, but elsewhere. Because these issues interest me a great deal, I was sorry to see Dr. Mark note what he believed was the "yawning indifference" of historians to these problems. (Although we don't know much about the details, Ms. Sindlinger's article suggests that at least a few historians and political scientists did try over the years to talk to White House counsel, first Alberto Gonzalez, then Harriet Miers, about electronic recordkeeping.) Dr. Mark's posting was gloomy, he concluded in 2005, "The day shall surely come, I predict, when some great and terrible event will bring all these consequences home to the country at large."

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