GOP issuing 'Clinton library cards'

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Republicans across the country are encouraging voters to sign up for a "Clinton library card," a publicity stunt to highlight the dispute over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's White House records.

The Democrats have been arguing over the issue since it surfaced during an Oct. 30 debate, and former President Bill Clinton has since said the debate question about the records kept by the National Archives was "breathtakingly misleading."

But Republicans have seized on it as well, with the Republican National Committee (RNC) sending a "What's Hillary hiding?" e-mail yesterday in a push to tarnish the front-runner and suggest that she is secretive.

"In 2004, Hillary claimed that all of the records at the Clinton Library would be opened," the party wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "Nearly three years after the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library and the ensuing Freedom of Information Act Requests, less than half of one percent of the library's documents are open for review."...

[HNN Editor: In a letter to the editor, MAARJA KRUSTEN, former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist, wrote the following.]

Regarding "GOP issuing 'Clinton library cards'" (Nation, Wednesday), keep in mind that for 200 years, a president's White House files were considered personal property. Upon leaving office, he could screen them, keep what he wanted and burn the rest. Except for Richard Nixon, all the presidents from Herbert Hoover through Jimmy Carter donated portions of their files, with varying restrictions, to libraries administered by the National Archives.

The late Clement Vose, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, noted of the donor-restricted presidential libraries that they often set aside records dealing with contentious matters to allow "the passage of time to dim controversy" related to presidents.

Government ownership of a president's official records is a relatively new concept. So, too, is the notion that the public can request access to them soon after the president leaves office. Under laws passed in the 1970s, Mr. Nixon's records are government property, as are those of presidents holding office after 1981.

If the National Archives' mission were easy, The Washington Times would not have written in 1994 of apparent disputes about "differing philosophies over access to government records" at the agency" ("Turmoil continues at Archives," Page 1, May 13, 1994). The editorial page had earlier referred to "access to the personal, private papers of recent presidents, access that liberal activists have long sought but until now have been unable to gain" ("What's really going on at the archives," Editorial, April 13, 1994).

As it turned out, work at the Reagan Presidential Library had triggered questions as to whether archivists could open official records that were statutorily releasable but that a former president wanted sealed. The National Archives' inspector general asserted that by law, the decision to release records lay with the Archives.

The National Archives faces many challenges, but outsiders often have painted them broadly in black and white. Having worked on screening the records of a president for whom I had voted (Mr. Nixon), I know why archivists must act objectively. That Mr. Nixon fought us doesn't keep me from understanding the fear he might have felt at the revelations the law required. Unless you take into account human nature and the psychology of disclosure, you cannot understand what current laws ask of the nation's recordkeeper.

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    Maarja Krusten - 11/17/2007

    The link to my published letter is

    Although I would not have taken the approach the Washington Times did in 1994 in covering reported disputes at the National Archives about "differing philosophies over access to government records," and wish it had then reported what the agency Inspector General had concluded, I give it a lot of credit for now publishing my letter in full.

    As to Presidential records, can argue for "limited access," a term used by the Washington Times in 1994. Or deferred access. Or one can argue for early access. But for statutes to have meaning, policies must be applied consistently. If you want limited access to the records of a President of one party, you also must advocate it for Presidents of the other party. If you want the law to provide early access to the records of the President of one party, then you must advocatge the same for the other. The fact that people, including here on HNN, have so much trouble stating such support for the Archives suggests in itself the sources of difficulties with the access laws.

    As a result of what I've seen here on HNN and elsewhere, inceasingly, I'm beginning to think that the five year period before the public can request access under FOIA is too short. So too, perhaps the 12 year period duirng which the President can ask the Archives to apply restrictions he selects from a set menu. (After 12 years, the Presidential restrictions no longer apply as such but some types of information still remain protected. FOIA kicks in except for the deliberative process exemption. Confidential communications may be considered then for release. Confidential does not mean in the sense covered by E.O. 12958 for cllassified but rather unclassified advice, predecisional information and so forth.)

    It might be better to seal records for longer periods and allow archivists to do systematic processing to prepare materials for release in an orderly fashion.

    Maarja Krusten
    Former National Archives' Nixon project archivist