Meredith Fuchs: The White House: Off Limits to Historians?
[The author is the general counsel of the non-profit, non-governmental National Security Archive (the Archive) at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org). The Archive was a plaintiff in American Historical Ass’n v. Nat’l Archives and Records Admin., Civ. No. 01-2447 (D.D.C.), which challenged Bush Executive Order 13,233 regarding the Presidential Records Act, resulting in invalidation of a portion of the executive order. It is also a plaintiff in National Security Archive v. Executive Office of the President (EOP), Civ. No. 07-1577 (D.D.C.) (challenging the destruction of White House e-mails).]
The president of the United States is often called the leader of the free world. It is no wonder that historians and political scientists consider the records related to presidential activities, policy, and decisionmaking so valuable for analyzing U.S. government policy at home and abroad. But over the last seven years there have been a series of moves by the current administration that may ensure that the records of the White House and the federal offices and agencies that work closely with the White House will not be available to historians.
The problem is twofold. First, the Bush administration does not value (or may even be hostile to) the preservation and disclosure of records. Second, we have seen advances in technology that have transformed the way in which we all communicate. The juxtaposition of these circumstances may mean that primary sources on the most important decisions and activities in the government may be lost, destroyed, or closed to the public.
This administration’s hostility towards public access to records has deep roots. Soon after becoming governor of Texas in 1995, George W. Bush signed a law that newly permitted former governors to send their records to institutions other than the Texas State Library and Archives, which had received the records of every former Texas governor since 1846. When the time came for Governor Bush to make use of the law at the end of his term, he sent his gubernatorial records to his father’s presidential library at Texas A&M University. That move would have delayed and limited access to the records under Texas law. It was necessary for then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn to rule that the records belonged to the state of Texas and remained subject to Texas open-government laws. As a result, the records were returned to the Texas State Archives in Austin to prepare them for research use.
Other senior administration officials have exhibited a similar attitude about the records of the presidency. In a tribute speech in honor of former President Gerald R. Ford, delivered at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum on September 14, 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney told an audience that
this Museum, and the Ford Library in Ann Arbor, mean a great deal to me--not just personally but from the standpoint of history, because I was chief of staff in the Ford White House. I'm told researchers like to come and dig through my files, to see if anything interesting turns up. I want to wish them luck--(laughter)--but the files are pretty thin. I learned early on that if you don't want your memos to get you in trouble some day, just don't write any.
The decision not to create records documenting government decisionmaking is in itself troubling. Its impact is compounded by the proliferation of BlackBerries, instant messaging, and other new means of communication that often do not leave traces unless specific efforts are made to preserve the communications. This issue came to light most prominently in news stories about White House officials’ use of BlackBerries and e-mail accounts issued by the Republican National Committee. But the problem is not limited to hot-button controversies at the White House. The use of BlackBerries, voicemail, instant messaging and other emergent technologies is spreading, while records management policies may not be keeping pace.
The risk of disappearance and destruction has also arisen with electronic communications that most people think are safely recorded and maintained for future disclosure—e-mails. The apparent large-scale loss of White House e-mails was first publicly disclosed on January 23, 2006, when prosecutors investigating the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent informed “Scooter” Libby’s defense attorneys that “not all email records from the Office of the Vice President and the Executive Office of President for certain time periods in 2003 were preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system.” In April 2007, it became clear that the problem was much larger, with potentially as many as five million e-mails deleted from the Executive Office of the President servers. These may include e-mails from the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Trade Representative, the Council on Environmental Quality, and others, including the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the National Security Council.
For records that may have survived these poor information management policies, there is a significant risk that they may never be accessible to historians because of a concerted campaign to impede the release of the remaining records with various hurdles, any one of which may prevent them from being subject to disclosure. For instance, records marked as classified—whether properly or improperly—will be less likely to be released, or their release will be delayed by the need to conduct declassification reviews, and there is evidence that at least within the OVP, classification-like markings were routinely used on materials that may not have merited classification under the terms of Executive Order 12,958, as amended by Executive Order 13,292.
In addition, this administration is attempting to transform agencies and records that would ordinarily be subject to disclosure laws into non-agencies and non-federal records that are no longer subject to requests under the principle public disclosure law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For example, the White House Office of Administration has long been acknowledged as a federal agency subject to the FOIA. It has processed FOIA requests for many years, has published its own FOIA regulations since 1980, had—until recently—an FOIA website, and submitted annual FOIA reports to Congress. Yet when the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued the Office of Administration under the FOIA for records about the White House e-mail system, the office changed its tune and argued that it was not even an “agency” under the terms of the FOIA, so the suit should be dismissed. The tactic of redefining a government entity’s status is not entirely new. During the Clinton administration, the White House successfully took the position that the National Security Council (NSC) was not an “agency” under the Federal Records Act or the FOIA, resulting in NSC records being thereafter considered presidential in nature and managed under the requirements of the Presidential Records Act of 1978 (PRA).
The OVP is also attempting to redefine itself. After traditionally reporting data about its records classification practices to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which is charged with oversight of the government-wide national security classification system, the OVP stopped providing the data in 2003 and refused to subject itself to an onsite audit by the ISOO. The rationale for evading records management oversight? The OVP contended it was not a part of the executive branch of government.
A similar tactic has been attempted with respect to categories of records. In response to suits brought by the Washington Post and CREW, the administration has taken the position that Secret Service visitor logs, which are created and maintained by the Secret Service and have traditionally been considered agency records, instead should be considered presidential records.
White House records that are not missing, destroyed, misclassified as secret, or withdrawn from federal record status should eventually be considered for disclosure under the terms of the PRA. The administration, however, has set up new hurdles for those records as well. This article addresses only one of these hurdles in depth—the undermining of the Presidential Records Act. The PRA merits particular attention now because, mere months away from a presidential transition, the time left to preserve remaining records is limited. Moreover, this issue has been raised in relation to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the presidency and her view about the release of presidential records from President Bill Clinton’s term. Finally, at the time this article was written, a bill to return the PRA to its original standards for release of presidential records was pending in Congress. Despite overwhelming support in the House of Representatives, however, the bill has been subject to three holds, the most recent by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), thus preventing a vote in the Senate.
These controversies should matter to historians. As time marches on, the documentary records that reflect agency decisionmaking may be the best evidence of how decisions were reached, who made those decisions, whether they were good or bad decisions, and how they impacted the nation and the world. Without original source materials concerning the White House role in instituting a war or transforming intelligence policy and military policy, the only story to tell will be the one the politicians in office choose to share with the public. That story is not the one that will help future leaders learn how to make better decisions or that will give the American public the information it needs to be informed voters.
Background: Executive Privilege
Although the phrase “executive privilege” does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, presidential administrations often use it to explain why the president and his advisors have the right to withhold information from the courts, the Congress, and the public. It was used by our first president and in all administrations since, including the current one. It is the basis for the White House resisting subpoenas, refusing to testify in Congress, and refusing to disclose records of who visited the White House and when. And it lies at the heart of disputes regarding presidential records.
According to Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University who has authored two books on executive privilege, the term “executive privilege” was first used during the Eisenhower administration, when the president had an expansive view of its reach. Most scholars describe the privilege as implied by Article II of the Constitution, although at least one scholar, Raoul Berger, has called it a myth. Today, with the privilege entrenched in case law, statutes and executive orders, it has become a potent weapon for the White House and high-level executive branch officials to fight off inquiry into their conduct.
It is, however, a conditional privilege, so it can be overridden if there is a strong reason to dispense with it, such as when the president is under investigation for a crime. Thus, when President Nixon sought to protect the Watergate tapes that had been subpoenaed by the special prosecutor, the Supreme Court turned him down. The Court acknowledged “the valid need for protection of communications between high Government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their manifold duties.” Nevertheless, it held that the privilege is neither absolute nor strong enough to withstand the needs of the government and the defendants in a criminal prosecution. The tapes were turned over, and President Nixon resigned soon afterward.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 (PRA)
The fallout from the Watergate scandal changed the nation in many ways. Among congressional reactions to the scandal was the passage of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. The PRA alters the practice that had been in place for much of our nation’s history, which left the documentary materials generated during a president’s term in office largely subject to the president’s control both during and after his presidency. The PRA makes it clear that the records of the presidency belong to the public and must be turned over to the Archivist of the United States at the end of the president’s term. It limits a president’s control over White House records and provides for public access to them after the president leaves office.
Although the PRA does not provide any public access for the first five years after the presidency, after that period the records become subject to information requests through the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The outgoing president has the right to restrict certain categories of information for up to an additional seven years (twelve years in full). These categories include:
1. Classified national security information
2. Information about federal appointments
3. Information exempt from disclosure by statute
4. Trade secrets and confidential commercial or financial information
5. Confidential communications between the president and his advisors
6. Information that would invade personal privacy
If the president extends the restriction on disclosure for these categories of information, then those records become subject to the provisions of the FOIA after twelve years. Though subject to the FOIA, the records are not subject to withholding under Exemption (b)(5) of the FOIA, which protects against disclosure of deliberative process or privileged information. Thus, after twelve years, presidential materials—including confidential communications between a president and his advisors or among his advisors—may not be withheld as deliberate executive branch communications, but instead must be released to the public unless the FOIA provides a different basis for withholding them (such as the national security classification of the materials).
The PRA does not leave former presidents without any safety valve concerning the release of information, however. It requires the Archivist of the United States to notify the former president if any planned disclosure of records might “adversely affect any [of his] rights and privileges.” To implement its notification function, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issued a regulation allowing the former president or his designated representative thirty days to assert any rights or privileges regarding the records. Under the regulation, as under the PRA, the Archivist is not bound to withhold the records on the basis of the former president’s assertion of rights or privileges. However, the regulation requires written notice to the former president if the Archivist rejects the assertion and provides time for him to seek judicial review. It also requires notice to the incumbent president.
The PRA took effect on January 20, 1981, making the records of President Ronald Reagan the first to be subject to its rules. Shortly before his term ended in 1989, President Reagan issued Executive Order 12,667, which set forth additional procedures regarding implementation of the PRA. That order required the Archivist to identify any possible executive privilege issues, gave the incumbent president the authority to extend the review time for the records of a former president and asserted the right of the incumbent president to block the release of the records unless otherwise ordered by a court or sitting president.
Applying the Presidential Records Act to the Records of Former Presidents
When President Reagan left office on January 20, 1989, the Archivist received his presidential records, which include almost forty-four million pages of documents, electronic records such as e-mail messages, and photographs and audiovisual materials. Before leaving office, Reagan exercised his right under the PRA to restrict for the maximum period of twelve years all materials falling within the restricted categories enumerated in the law. During the twelve-year period NARA opened up many records that did not fall into the categories of restricted information.
The twelve-year restriction period expired on January 20, 2001. By that time NARA had identified sixty-eight thousand pages of documents that were restricted solely because they were considered “confidential communications”—i.e., they were not classified or otherwise subject to continued withholding. Because the PRA provides that the “confidential communications” restriction only applies for twelve years, at the end of the twelve-year restriction period NARA notified both Reagan and the sitting president, George W. Bush, that the sixty-eight thousand pages were scheduled for disclosure.
NARA’s notice prompted then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to twice instruct the Archivist to postpone any action regarding the sixty-eight thousand pages. A third communication from Mr. Gonzales to NARA indicated that the White House was considering various “constitutional and legal questions” and that NARA should continue to postpone any action. Then, on November 1, 2001, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13,233 (the “Bush Order”), which superseded the Reagan executive order. The Bush Order sets forth procedures and standards governing the assertion of claims of executive privilege over “confidential communications” by both former and incumbent presidents following the expiration of the twelve-year restriction period. It specifically describes constitutional executive privilege as including the common-law attorney-client and work-product privileges, the deliberative process privilege, and the state secrets privilege. It also places a burden on individuals seeking such records to demonstrate their need for them.
Procedurally, the Bush Order permits former presidents and the sitting president to delay indefinitely their review of the records scheduled for release by NARA. Essentially, it grants the former president the power to make the decision to withhold records absent “compelling circumstances.” And even if the sitting president finds compelling circumstances for releasing the records, they still cannot be released unless the former president agrees or a court mandates their release. The sitting president also has the authority to independently prevent disclosure of the records. Not only can the public be denied access to the records under this scheme, but the Archivist is not permitted to provide the records in response to a congressional or judicial subpoena unless the former president and the sitting president agree or a court orders access. The Bush Order also stipulates that former presidents can pass along their power to prevent disclosure to family members or designated representatives, and it grants former vice presidents the right to claim executive privilege independently and to prevent access to vice-presidential records on that basis.
The Bush Order led to a storm of controversy in the historical community. A lawsuit was filed by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, Vanderbilt University Professor Hugh Graham, University of Wisconsin Professor Stanley Kutler, the National Security Archive, Public Citizen and the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press in November 2001. The lawsuit sought to challenge the Bush Order’s provisions permitting indefinite review of records that NARA determined were subject to release and the extension of authority to assert executive privilege to the heirs and designees of a former president and vice president.
Over many months, the original sixty-eight thousand records that NARA had scheduled for release were released, but it became apparent that additional records had been withheld from release. Parties to the lawsuit continued to seek access to these records. Eventually, the government announced that President Reagan’s representative had claimed a constitutional executive privilege to bar the release of seventy-four pages of the documents. The incumbent president concurred in the decision to assert privilege because there was no circumstance that would have compelled him not to do so.
Meanwhile, in addition to Reagan presidential records, the presidential and vice-presidential records of George H.W. Bush have been subject to review under Executive Order 13,233, as have the records of Bill Clinton. The effect of the reviews called for by the Bush Order has been to delay substantially the release of materials in response to such requests. For instance, the Reagan Library’s estimated completion time frames increased from eighteen months in 2001 to an estimated seventy-eight months (six and a half years) in 2007.
In October 2007, the court ruled that one part of the Bush Order is invalid. Specifically, the court held that the Archivist of the United States acts arbitrarily, capriciously, and contrary to law by relying on E.O. 13,233 in delaying the release of the records of former presidents. Unfortunately, the court did not consider the issue of whether it was permissible for President Bush to extend the authority over disclosure of presidential papers to a former president’s heirs or to former vice presidents, nor did it rule on the substantive changes effected by the Bush Order, such as its expansive notions of executive privilege. The court put those issues off for another court at another time, holding that they are not ripe for review. For historians and political scientists, this is bad news. It has long been understood that executive privilege is not only conditional; it also dissipates over time. Indeed, this is the basis for the PRA provision that allows confidential communications of the former president to be subject to release under the FOIA after twelve years. Furthermore, the possibility that some records could be withheld forever on the basis of private citizens asserting executive privilege is alarming, and the creation of vice presidential privilege dramatically expands the universe of potentially withheld records.
Challenging these provisions may have to wait until a former president, former vice president, or their children or grandchildren overreach and claim the privilege for materials that should not be protected. Until then, the Bush Order, like the law he signed in Texas that allowed him initially to send his records to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library instead of the Texas Archives, puts a gaping hole in the United States’ records disclosure mandates.
The Presidential Records Act was designed to ensure that the records of the presidency would ultimately be turned over to the American people and made available through the orderly procedures of the FOIA. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the law is not sufficient. President Bush’s executive order has delayed the release of presidential records, and Congress’s attempt to override it is stuck in the Senate because one senator objects to it being voted on. There are very limited controls on how presidential records should be maintained prior to the end of a presidency. The White House e-mail problems of the Clinton and now the Bush administration demonstrate that without some standards and oversight for the preservation of records, a critical part of the documentary history of the U.S. government may remain forever beyond reach.
“Interpretation of Texas Government Code section 441.201 concerning the official records of a former governor,” Opinion No. JC-0498 (May 3, 2002), available at HYPERLINK "http://www.oag.state.tx.us/opinions/op49cornyn/jc-0498.htm" http://www.oag.state.tx.us/opinions/op49cornyn/jc-0498.htm (all website references herein were last checked on February 11, 2008).
See Texas Archival Resources Online, Texas Governor George W. Bush: An Inventory of Executive Office Records at the State Archives, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tslac/60007/tsl-60007.html" http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tslac/60007/tsl-60007.html.
Text available at HYPERLINK "http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/09/20070914-3.html" http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/09/20070914-3.html.
Tom Hamburger, “GOP-issued laptops now a White House Headache,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-na-laptops9apr09,0,4563806.story?coll=la-home-headlines" http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-na-laptops9apr09,0,4563806.story?coll=la-home-headlines.
Letter of Patrick J. Fitzgerald to Libby Defense Counsel, January 23, 2006, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2006/02/fitz012306.pdf" http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2006/02/fitz012306.pdf.
“Without a Trace: The Missing White House E-mails and the Violations of the Presidential Records Act, April 12, 2007,” available at HYPERLINK "http://www.citizensforethics.org/node/27607" http://www.citizensforethics.org/node/27607; see also National Security Archive, “White House Admits No Backups Tapes for E-mail Before October 2003,” January 16, 2008, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20080116/index.htm" http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20080116/index.htm.
Michael Isikoff, “Challenging Cheney: A National Archives Official Reveals What the Veep Wanted to Keep Classified—and How He Tried to Challenge the Rules,” Newsweek, December 24, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.newsweek.com/id/81883/output/print" http://www.newsweek.com/id/81883/output/print
“CREW Files Opposition Brief in Office of Administration Suit,” September 4, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.citizensforethics.org/node/30038" http://www.citizensforethics.org/node/30038.
Michael Isikoff, “Challenging Cheney: A National Archives Official Reveals What the Veep Wanted to Keep Classified—and How He Tried to Challenge the Rules,” Newsweek, December 24, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.newsweek.com/id/81883/output/print" http://www.newsweek.com/id/81883/output/print. Similarly, it has been reported that the OVP has exempted itself from reporting travel and related expenses to the Office of Government Ethics. See HYPERLINK "http://www.publicintegrity.org/lobby/report.aspx?aid=760" http://www.publicintegrity.org/lobby/report.aspx?aid=760.
Michael Abramowitz, “Secret Services Logs of White House Visitors are Records, Judge Rules,” Washington Post, December 18, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/17/AR2007121701397.html" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/17/AR2007121701397.html.
Michael Isikoff, “Papers? I don’t see any papers,” Newsweek, Oct. 29, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.newsweek.com/id/57351" http://www.newsweek.com/id/57351.
“Senator Sessions Places Hold on Presidential Records Bill,” National Coalition for History, January 23, 2008, available at HYPERLINK "http://historycoalition.org/2008/01/23/senator-sessions-placest-hold-on-presidential-records-bill/" http://historycoalition.org/2008/01/23/senator-sessions-placest-hold-on-presidential-records-bill/.
United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 705 (1974).
44 U.S.C. §§ 2201-2207.
Those seventy-four pages included several duplicates. Among the unique records were: March 13, 1986, Alfred H. Kingon, “The White House, Washington, Memorandum for Donald T. Regan, ‘International Economic Issues’” (four pages); November 22, 1988 and December 1, 2988 memoranda, Arthur B. Culvahouse, Jr., Counsel to the President, Memorandum, for the President, “Pardon for Oliver L. North, John Poindexter, Joseph Fernandez” (two records, one totaling four pages and one totaling two pages).
“Court Rules Delay in Release of Presidential Papers is Illegal,” The National Security Archive, October 1, 2007, available at HYPERLINK "http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20071001/index.htm" http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20071001/index.htm.
See Nixon v. Adm’r of Gen’l Servs., 433 U.S. 425 (1977) (allowing the transmission of recordings to archivists less than three years after Nixon left office); Nixon v. Freeman, 670 F.2d 346 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (permitting Nixon recordings to be made available to the public eight years after he left office).
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Maarja Krusten - 5/21/2008
The Senate HSGAC held a hearing on May 14, 2008 on the National Archives and electronic records. There were two panels, the first composed of government witnesses, the second (which included an historian) of representatives of interest groups. For the prepared testimony statements of all the participants, see
For me, as a former employee of the National Archives, the most interesting prepared statement was that of Paul Brachfeld, Inspector General of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). One gets interesting glimpses into internal NARA relationships (including with the U.S. Archivist) and differing organizational perspectives. If anyone wants to learn more about NARA and the challenges its officials face in dealing with the White House and electronic records, it's worth taking a look at the statement.
In his statement, Mr. Brachfeld noted the challenges he faced during John Carlin's tenure in expanding his IG staff so he could audit the Electronic Records Archive (ERA) initiative. He wrote also in his prepared statement that:
"In April 2007, an article raised my concern as to the condition of the White House records, as under the Presidential Records Act, Bush 43 Presidential Records will accrue
to NARA. The ingestion of these records is to be a key and early benchmark in the successful deployment of ERA. Following the April 2007 article, I requested briefings
and was informed by key NARA staff members that the Bush 43 development and transition to a new and effective record keeping system had not been accomplished and records were being stored in a vulnerable production server environment. After looking
into this I found an internal NARA report for the fourth quarter of FY 2006 where a NARA official reported that they 'continued' to work on matters relating to management of electronic records by the Executive Office of the President, Office of Administration.
The problem for my office is that concerns as to access issues or functionality of White House record keeping systems were never directed to my attention by knowledgeable
NARA officials prior to press accounts reaching my desk. Thus I was not afforded the opportunity to address a significant condition which will potentially impact a major
NARA program that falls under my statutory jurisdiction.
I am aware of momentum to provide NARA additional authority to ensure Federal agency compliance with records standards most notably with regard to their internal preservation of electronic records. I believe that such legislation and related funding is required. If NARA does not assume this role then I ask who will. NARA traditionally has not viewed itself as an enforcement entity but rather one that focuses upon collegiality and relationships. I believe that given limited cognizance into agency record
keeping processes, a void exists in which inappropriate treatment or loss of Federal records may well be occurring. This position may be alien to my peers at NARA but I come from dual law· enforcement and audit backgrounds and believe that additional powers, authority and resources are needed in this area. The consequences of failed record keeping in Federal agencies today will adversely impact our nation tomorrow."
His statement is available through the above link or directly at
For information on the second panel from the perspective of the organization of one of the witnesses (Tom Blanton), see also
It's interesting that Brachfeld refers to a news article from 2007 as the source for alerting him to issues with WH email and electronic record keeping.
I realized there might be some problems much earlier, when I saw in 2004 a blurb in U.S. News & World Report entitled, "It's Yahoo, Baby." See the short item at the bottom of page one at
I posted about this item on an archivists’ listserv on October 15, 2004 and mentioned it on HNN in 2006 under an essay a professor had written about “The Romance of E-mail.” (On HNN, predictably, my post about the effect on records management of officials using off system email drew a reaction from Andrew Todd, who has an engineering background, but no reaction from my fellow historians).
Yet U.S. News reported as early as 2004 "'I don't want my E-mail made public,' said one insider. As a result, many aides have shifted to Internet E-mail instead of the White House system. 'It's Yahoo!, baby,' says a Bushie."
Historians largely have ignored these issues, at least in public. Hard to say why. As I’ve noted previously, I suspect it is because history is a profession that rewards individual scholarship, not forays into public policy or efforts to ensure preservation of and access to records, and most of scholars are absorbed in their own work. Most historians still may be using records from the pre-computer age in their research. Projecting into the present and considering how they might advocate for good legal or technical solutions to preserve records consequently may seem a challenge, even burdensome or an unnecessary distraction. Also, projecting how these issues look to all the different stakeholders seems to be a challenge.
Whatever the reason, when our successors look back, they may get the impression that the time period Ms. Fuchs describes in her article was a very quiet, acquiescent age as far as most individual historians were concerned. (Consider the fact that she mentions Stanley Kutler as a plaintiff in a recent lawsuit regarding WH records. The same scholar, Dr. Kutler, was the plaintiff in Kutler v. Wilson, the Nixon tapes lawsuit filed way back in 1992, for which I was called as a witness.)
As HNN’s readers know, I’ve tried to encourage historians to look at archival issues related to former Presidents. Interestingly, even when the National Archives faced removal of the incumbent U.S. Archivist during 2004-2005, that wasn’t enough to get scholars to dig deeply into these issues. Many competing obligations and layers of complexity surround issues of records access, preservation, and technology. Since figuring out the solutions isn't easy, and there are so many forces at play, it would be nice to hear more from NARA's customers than has been the case in recent years. Still, given the fact that Rick Shenkman posted Ms. Fuch’s article from Passport, perhaps a few readers might find the HSGAC links above of interest.
Maarja Krusten - 5/19/2008
Interesting recap of executive, legislative and judicial actions affecting Presidential records. Of course, until 1974, a President's White House files were considered his personal property, he had discretion to dispose of them at will. In modern times, Presidents from Herbert Hoover through Jimmy Carter donated selected portions of their WH records to Presidential Libraries. Only in the 1970s did Congress pass laws (the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, 1974, and the Presidential Records Act, 1978) that asserted government ownership of WH records. (The PRMPA applies solely to Nixon's records.) So the concept of statutory control is not old, in relative terms.
Of course, while there are laws on the books that administer Presidential records, there is no Constitutional historian's right to know. So how these things play out depends on many factors beyond the legal and legislative, including the fact that human beings are involved in every step from the creation of records to their consideration for release by employees of the National Archives.
I wish I could prod historians into considering the psychology of disclosure more than they have in the past. I think it would make them more effective advocates for the National Archives than they have been. I've asked questions along this line on HNN in the past, which unfortunately went unanswered: "what if these were records of your career as an historian, which your predecessors until 1974 could treat as personal. You no longer have that option, your files must be handled under statutory controls. The public can start requesting them five years after you leave your job. Would you say, 'Sure, examine my career and professional relationships at will during my lifetime, I can live with everything captured on paper or in electronic files.' If you wouldn't find this easy, why not? What would make it work better for all the stakeholders?"
In 2007, I put the following to a vote on an archivists' listserv:
1) Let's set aside E.O. 13233, the 2001 Bush order, whose ultimate disposition is unknown -- it may or may not be affected by future legislative or judicial action -- and focus just on the statutes. They largely get this right. The Presidential Records Act of 1978, while difficult to implement, sets the right time periods in allowing researchers to file FOIA requests after 5 years and Presidents to set restrictions for 12 years. After 12 years, FOIA applies except for pre-decisional advice, which, unlike under FOIA exemptions, now may be considered for release. The PRA gets this right in the original legislation. NARA has to do its utmost to make the existing access statutes (PRA, FOIA) work.
(2) Richer records were created in the past, when officials did not have to worry about them being opened soon. A President's records should remain government property but archivists should have a longer time to do the type of systematic processing once done in the donor restricted Presidential libraries. The current FOIA process bogs down archivists, is too difficult and potentially adversarial, as it places NARA, former Presidents, and researchers in situations that may be very hard to resolve. Lengthen the period before researchers can request records but continue to allow NARA to do special access searches for inquiries by commissions, records required for hearings on nominations, and other such governmental investigations.
(3) Except in matters involving Special Prosecutors, investigations by government commissions, etc., officials deserve maximum confidentiality in their records during their lifetimes. Living former Presidents (Bush, Clinton) should have maximum power, similar to that once held by LBJ, JFK, and other Presidents prior to Watergate, to restrict information in White House records during their lifetimes.
It was an informal poll on my part, just a question thrown out to the listserv. Interestingly, most of the archivists who responded voted for option 2. Options 1 and 3 both got a few votes. As an historian and a former National Archives' Nixon Project archivist, I can understand why most archivists went with option 2.
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