NARA seeking new ways to speed processing of presidential records

Breaking News

The National Archives says it is exploring new methods to accelerate the disclosure of records at Presidential libraries.

Archivists "decided to undertake an in-house study in the spring of 2007 to review ways to achieve faster processing of Presidential records," stated Emily Robison, acting director of the Clinton Presidential Library, in an October 2 declaration that was filed in a lawsuit brought against NARA by Judicial Watch.

"As a result of this study, a one-year pilot project was initiated to implement the most promising proposals," she said. The pilot project was first reported by Josh Gerstein in the New York Sun on October 4.

In response to a request for further information about the project, NARA released a list of procedural changes it is using or considering to expedite processing of records. These include "cease routine referral of classified items... for classification review" and "halt printing e-mail attachments that do not easily open." See:

An extensive interview with Sharon Fawcett, assistant archivist for presidential libraries, explores the role of President Clinton and Senator Clinton in the processing of records at the Clinton Library, the genesis of President Bush's executive order on presidential records, and the procedural and resource constraints under which the Presidential records review process operates.

See "Inside the Clinton Archives" by Alexis Simendinger, National Journal, December 17:

The Department of the Navy has updated its "Records Management Manual" with considerable detail on the various categories of Navy records and how they are to be handled. See SECNAV Manual 5210.1, November 2007 (473 pages, 5 MB PDF file):

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 12/20/2007

I know, those who wish can laugh that I'm conducting a monologue here, but I don't mind, I happen to think these issues are important. Obviously, I'm not afraid of appearing silly here.

In the analogy above, when I emailed the professor, I posited in the hypothetical that the pressure from the academic institution to delete passages from his or her book came from outside. That is, parents whose students attended the school or alumni or donors were pressuring the university regarding what the professor proposed to publish. I needed to make that clear so as to make it more analogous to a situation where the exertion of privilege would not be represented as coming from a former President but instead might be represented as an independent archival action.

Maarja Krusten - 12/20/2007

For those who haven't been reading HNN for a long time and who may wonder why I raise the question of deletions being made without being linked to a former President, I offer this passage from Jack Hitt's 1994 article, "Nixon's Last Trum'," in Harper's:

"In 1991 the archives moved to make its first genuine tape release (the 12 1/2 hours of tape played in open court during the prosecution of John Mitchell were made public in 1980). The addition to the public knowledge involved 47 1/2 hours of tapes subpoenaed by Jaworski but not introduced as evidence. Before the archives could release them, [a Nixon agent’s] reports to Nixon resulted in seventy objections. Surprisingly, these objections found a champion in the assistant archivist for presidential libraries, John Fawcett.

Through a subsequent lawsuit, it became clear that Nixon made his complaints to Fawcett, who directed the working archivists to disguise Nixon's demands for retractions as internal decisions. The archivists balked. One was banished (to Denver); others quit."

Although I would be interested to hear whether such situations occur within academe, or otherwise have resonance for historians, I think I'm unlikely to hear about it.

During a cordial email exchange on some other issues, I once asked a professor how s/he would feel if s/he wrote a book but his or her academic employer insisted before publication that he delete certain passages pertinent to his central thesis. Would s/he submit, resist, try to reason with the requester, insist on noting in the book why he or she had to leave out certain passages, make the cuts with no public notice, or seek help from fellow academics for his institution in the hope that he or she could protect colleagues from ending up in the same situation? That individual did not respond, unfortunately. So I have no idea whether submission, resistance, or advocacy would be result within an academic environment. Nor do I know, come to think of it, what expectations most scholars have for government employees on whom they depend for access to records.

Maarja Krusten - 12/19/2007

The interview with Sharon Fawcett, a senior National Archives' official, provides the general public (scholars among them) some very useful information. I hope historians (academic, governmental, and independent) read it and draw on the information in it, when they opine here on HNN and elsewhere on matters relating to Presidential records and libraries. It explains how much power a President has to control access to his records during the 12 year restriction period. And what the basis is (a constitutional right) for claims of executive privilege which mostly come into play after the 12 year period (a President's review rights continue throughout his lifetime, of course.).

I think the trickiest part in all this is this: what if somewhere down the road, a former President (or more likely his designated) representative reviews something the Archives has marked for opening and thinks, no, we don't want this out. What if he doesn't want the former President's name associated with the withholding of the material? Will he lean on the Archives to delete or redact information and to represent the cut as one deriving from archivists?

I gather historians -- the Archives' customers -- don't much care whether or not that were to occur, interestingly enough. Perhaps it is not indifference, I've started to wonder how many historians themselves have faced different types of external pressure in other situations in the academic world and given in enough times that they assume that such a reaction is the norm. Who knows!