Archives Challenges Clinton Papers Case

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The National Archives wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit seeking quick access to records about a health care task force Hillary Rodham Clinton headed as first lady, or delay the release for about a year.

Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest group, has complained in a lawsuit that the National Archives isn't moving fast enough on its April 2006 request to see the documents. The archives says Judicial Watch is trying to jump ahead of those who made earlier requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

"(The National Archives) does not believe that Judicial Watch or any other requester should receive more favorable treatment outside of our existing queue system," said Miriam Kleiman, a spokeswoman for the archives. "We have therefore asked the court to leave Judicial Watch's FOIA request in its proper place by dismissing or postponing any ruling in the case."

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Maarja Krusten - 2/2/2008

I'm not taking a position on the disposition of this case. I will comment, however, generally on where NARA fits in with the Department of Justice (DOJ). This applies regardless of which party is in power.

I take with a grain of salt anything NARA is quoted as saying (either in court pleadings or in the guise of a public affairs officer) whenever litigation is involved. One can never tell from outside to what extent NARA has any voice, at all, in such matters. The Department of Justice speaks for NARA in court. DOJ typically looks at all issues related to access to Presidential records from a position of protecting sitting and former Presidents' prerogatives and power to the *maximum* extent possible. Consequently, I never take statements attributed to NARA in such instances at face value. Once DOJ is in the mix, as always is the case when someone (a scholar, a public interest group, whoever) sues for public access, it's impossible to tell whether Archives officials would take the same position, if they had the ability to craft their own positions. I mentioned this during the debate over Allen Weinstein's nomination as U.S. Archivist.

I noted several years ago, when Dr. Weinstein was nominated to be U.S. Archivist, that:

"While I do not discount the Hiss and Haunted Wood controversies, I do not believe they should be used as the sole indicator of how Dr. Weinstein would perform as U.S. Archivist. More to the point might be how well an Archivist nominee has adhered to professional standards not only when he had something to gain or lose personally, but also in the face of political pressure exerted against the subordinates in his care; his track record on standing up for rather than sacrificing subordinates in the face of tough challenges; whether he typically defers to power or spends his professional currency in trying to achieve proper balance of competing interests, etc.

Some things will be beyond his control. An Archivist might be a person of enormous personal integrity and high standards but, if the interests of a sitting President lie in limited disclosure, as a subordinate agency, the Archives still might be forced to take questionable positions in court during litigation. Conversely, if a White House and its Justice Department are committed to public accountability and transparency, the Archivist most likely will take a reasonable position on public access or in matters in litigation. An administration's stance on public disclosure will affect those issues at least as much as the Archivist's personal characteristics. Where personal characteristics such as courage and integrity most matter are behind the scenes, where the Archivist has a choice of whether or not to push for doing the right thing, whether he prevails or not."