Is Hillary Responsible for the 'Library Lockdown'?
"Well actually, Tim, the Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves. There's about 20 million pieces of paper there...I think that, you know, the Archives will continue to move as rapidly as its circumstances and processes demand."
--Hillary Clinton, Democratic debate, October 30, 2007, in response to a question from Tim Russert on delays in the release of Clinton presidential papers.
"Library Lockdown Continues. Clintons 'Tightly Control' Release Of Hillary's Records; Inaccurately Blame White House For Backlog"
--Republican National Committee Press Release, October 22, 2007
To hear the Republicans talk, any delay in releasing Clinton presidential records is all the fault of the Clintons. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, would have us believe that she and her husband have nothing to do with the release of their own records. So who is telling the truth?
Both sides are being disingenuous, and are omitting inconvenient facts. Because of cumbersome declassification procedures introduced by President Bush, there are now huge delays in processing Freedom of Information requests at all presidential libraries, including the Clinton and Bush I libraries. But the Clintons are themselves taking advantage of a clause in a November 2001 Bush presidential order that permits former presidents to take all the time they need to review FOIA requests.
According to National Archives officials, 26,000 pages of Clinton presidential records are being held for release to researchers after being submitted to Clinton lawyer Bruce Lindsey for review. The records have been screened and processed by Archives officials under the Freedom of Information Act, but cannot be released to the public until Lindsey signs off on them as President Clinton's designated representative.
Lindsey did not respond to telephone calls. An associate, who asked not to be named, said Lindsey processed 4,000 out of the outstanding pages last week. The associate said Lindsey was going through the documents himself one by one at the presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, but he is "just one person" and can not delegate the work to other people. He blamed any delays on the new bureaucratic procedures ordered by Bush under Executive Order 13233.
A Clinton campaign spokesman, Jay Carson, said the former president had "consistently been an advocate for releasing his presidential records as quickly as possible" and had opposed the Bush administration order that placed new restrictions on their release.
There is, however, nothing in Executive Order 13233 that obliges a former president, or his representative, to go through the records one by one. If former President Clinton is so opposed to the Bush administration order, he could simply instruct Lindsey to approve the documents wholesale.
Once Lindsey approves the release of the documents, they then go to the White House for a final review. Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel said the White House has approved the release of all records it has received so far from Clinton's office.
How much these documents will tell us about the inside workings of the Clinton White House once they are finally released is another matter, of course. They represent a drop in an ocean of presidential memos, e-mails, and transcripts of telephone conversations that will take decades to process. Another 10 million documents have become the subject of nearly 300 recent FOIA requests, still to be processed by the Archives.
According to Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a non-profit group that monitors declassification procedures, delays in processing FOIA requests have mounted steadily during the seven years of the Bush presidency. Back in 2001, it was taking the Reagan library between 16 and 18 months to process a FOIA request. It now takes six and a half years. According to the National Archives, the current backlog for processing FOIA requests to the George H.W. Bush presidential library is four and a half years.
Some of these delays are the result of staffing shortages. But some are caused by the need to submit documents to former presidents for review. According to Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, an average of 90 days was spent on such reviews in 2004. By April 2007, the average time devoted to such reviews had increased to 210 days.
Blanton praised former President Clinton for releasing "more historically valuable documents and more secret documents than all previous presidents put together." He said across-the-board declassification orders during the Clinton administration and new restrictions on declassification under Bush had overwhelmed the system. Prior to the 2001 Bush order, the National Archives could automatically release records on its own initiative after 30 days, provided that no objection was received from a former president or government agency.
"The process is really daunting," said Susan Cooper, spokeswoman for the National Archives. "Every FOIA requests 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."
Some news organizations have made an issue out of a letter President Clinton wrote to the Archivist in 2002 exempting all-but-routine "communications" with the First Lady from the general release of records until 12 years after the end of his presidency, i.e. 2012. We find this less of a problem than the delays in processing FOIA requests. Bill Clinton can reasonably claim to be following precedent in this particular instance. His predecessors, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, requested similar exemptions for communications with their "advisers."
On the other hand, neither Nancy Reagan or Barbara Bush ever ran for the presidency of the United States.
The Pinocchio Test
Nobody comes off particularly well on this one. Republicans lack credibility when they criticize the Clintons for dragging their feet on the release of presidential records. The 2001 Bush executive order reversed many of the gains made during the Clinton years on access to government archives and release of secret information. But Hillary Clinton should not pretend she is an entirely innocent bystander. It is clear that former presidents have considerable say in deciding which of their records get released, and that influence has increased greatly under Bush II.
Two Pinocchios for both Clinton and the RNC.
| November 1, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: 2 Pinocchios, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, History
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