Hillary Clinton refuses to demand National Archives release documents

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In an exchange with Mr. Russert [at last night's Democratic Party presidential debate], arguably her third toughest opponent on the stage, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly declined to say whether she would push the National Archives to release correspondence from Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Clinton in the White House when he was president. Mr. Russert held up a copy of a letter from Mr. Clinton asking the Archives not to release any of those documents until 2012.

“Well, that’s not my decision to make,” she said. “And I don’t believe that any president or first lady has. But certainly we’ll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.”

Mr. Obama raised his hand, asking for a response. “We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history, and not releasing, I think, these records at the same time, Hillary, as you’re making the claim that this is the basis for your experience, I think, is a problem,” he said.

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Maarja Krusten - 11/1/2007

for the Washington Post's fact checking column on "Clinton v. the GOP on Presidential Papers."

According to the Post, "'The process is really daunting,' said Susan Cooper, spokeswoman for the Archives. 'Every FOIA request requires a huge amount of work. A lot of these requests are fishing expeditions, requiring us to look at millions and millions of pages. Once we have vetted everything for classified material, it then goes to the former president's representative, and then the current president. It is really cumbersome.'"

I raised my eyebrows at the statement from the spokeswoman for the National Archives and Records Administration. (No, she's not the same one who informed the NYT in 1991 that "years will pass" before Nixon's tapes become available because archivists were "cataloguing" and "transcribing" them. When Stanley Kutler filed his lawsuit for access to the Nixon tapes in 1992, NARA’s officials stated under oath that transcription had been rejected, one stating that it was contrary to archival principles. Indeed, the decision not to transcribe Nixon’s tapes was made in the early 1980s, some ten years before the NYT published an article Nixon’s tapes. That being the case, I’ve heard no plausible explanation of why transcription was offered as an explanation in 1991 for delays in opening Nixon’s tapes. It was so easy to show later that such was not being done. You will search for vain at NARA for systematic transcripts prepared by any government archivists in 1991 or the period thereafter (“years will pass”). During Kutler’s lawsuit, NARA’s internal documents revealed that the agency had finished archival processing of Nixon’s tapes in 1987, that it made plans to start releasing them between 1989 and 1995, but faced opposition from Nixon.).

Now we read that "Every FOIA request requires a huge amount of work." Why such a blanket assertion?

Certainly, such an assertion doesn't tell the public much about how archival searches might work in some cases. When I was working with the Nixon tapes and documents as a NARA, if I had received a FOIA request for documents potentially contained in the President's News Summary, I'd know where to look. I could go to the files for the office that generated such materials. That's one of the things they paid me for, knowing how Nixon's White House was organized functionally and how units kept their files. (Of course, under the PRMPA of 1974, Nixon's records are not subject to FOIA.) If I had to find documents containing the news summaries, I wouldn't need to go combing through files generated by White House advance men preparing for Presidential travel or those of the social office dealing with the details of guests coming to the White House or the various luncheons, dinners, receptions and other events. Or worry about having to have everything declassified.

At least in my day, I wouldn't have answered by discussing fishing expeditions and the need to comb through millions and millions of pages. NARA really needs to find a way to discuss this without implying that you have to look through your entire collection for every request submitted and that every document it holds is classified under E.O. 12958, as amended. Of course, it’s hard to say from outside why NARA formulates answers the way it does.

Is procedural transparency possible? I would like to think so but there certainly are many challenges. Generally speaking, the prospect of throwing open one's records for people to comb through, when you don't know if they will use an objective approach or cherry pick the evidence, would scare most people. (How easily would any of us do it?)

Whether they served at the local, state or federal level, officials of all parties who attained and held office through a very complicated political process often must face the prospect of opening their paper trails after they leave office. That can create a combustible mix for officials, records managers, and archivists. Sometimes things go well, sometimes badly.

Unfortunately, there is little discussion of that anywhere. Of course, some archivists and former archivists are interested in it. For many of them, their profession centers on applying balancing tests, taking into account the perspectives of various stakeholders, and, if they work for government entities, considering the public good. There is some sense of community among archivists as it is not one of those professions where “it’s all about me.” (Look at archivists’ discussion groups and you will see little rivalry or putting down of named individuals in the archival or related fields. Yes, there are some debates – and even some jokes -- about librarians v. archivists v. records managers, as professions. But there are no implicit or explicit expressions by individuals of how they want to sell more books, appear on TV or become more famous. What happens to the records, rather than the individual handling them, largely is the focus of threads in archival or records management forums.

But that is pretty much it as far as discussion of NARA. (No point in looking closely at all the very silly “Pet Goat” and Sandy Berger jokes that pop up regularly, predictably, and most unhelpfully in discussions of Presidential Libraries on political forums on the left and on the right.) The laws and judicial rulings posit a pristine environment which reality rarely matches. Historians largely ignore the subject and provide little assistance to an agency on which some of them rely greatly to do their work. Scholars (people who are students of history, government, public policy, diplomacy) who, one would expect, are especially well equipped to apply critical analysis to issues and to offer insights into how things happen and why, seem to shy away from looking closely at the psychology of disclosure. I haven’t figured out why.

The press isn't equipped to report on these issues -- reporters mostly write about individual cases and present them as if they exist in isolation. That leaves it to individuals (former officials, archivists) to grapple with the problems largely in isolation. How things work out depends on whether the creator of the records goes the way of Gerald Ford (relaxed attitude, openness), or Richard Nixon (fierce opposition, mudslinging at NARA by his advocates, etc.), or somewhere between the two. As I’ve mentioned here previously, more and more, as I consider all the factors, I find myself moving towards supporting longer statutory sealing of records of officials of both parties.