Monday, November 12, 2007

Clinton Library A Closed Book

Few of ex-first lady's files released by her husband's archive

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Visitors to the gleaming glass-and-steel William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library can see the former First Lady Hillary Clinton's gold-embroidered 1997 inaugural ball gown and hear Clinton extol his wife's contributions to his administration.

In time, Hillary Clinton "will deserve a lot of the credit" for the comprehensive health coverage that the former president predicts is on the horizon, he gushes in the audio for an exhibit celebrating "The Work of the First Lady."

But while tourists wandered through the museum one afternoon last week, awed by the bulletproof presidential limousine and the life-size replica of the Oval Office, the tables in the library's reading room sat empty -- unoccupied by the scholars, journalists and opposition researchers who might be expected to pore over the unique historical record of a White House that featured a leading role for a current presidential front-runner.

For good reason. Almost three years after the library's opening and nearly two years after the administration's archives became subject to federal open-records laws, only a small fraction of the archives has been opened to the public.

Virtually all of the 3 million pages of documents that detail the internal workings of the health-care task force that Hillary Clinton headed remain stored away in boxes, for example.

Although lengthy delays in releasing White House papers are typical, the presidential candidacy of a former first lady presents an unprecedented circumstance. Processing by government archivists is partly responsible for the slow pace. But critics note that Bill Clinton could lift restrictions that keep many controversial records out of the public eye until 2013, and he could speed up release of records by waiving a review by his personal representative.

An inventory displayed on the Clinton library Web site Friday morning showed that 23 requests for records made under the federal Freedom of Information Act have been fulfilled so far. The library had received 397 open-records requests through Sept. 26, according to a court filing in a related lawsuit.

Nearly half of the documents released so far were in response to requests for photos.The only large trove of documents released at the request of an independent researcher were 13,000 pages pertaining to the White House's public and cultural diplomacy initiatives.

Called to task by rival

According to the inventory, the library's only release of materials directly involving Hillary Clinton is a condolence letter she wrote as first lady to Laurance Rockefeller, a wealthy conservationist, on the death of his wife, as well as White House photographs of a trip she made to his ranch in Jackson, Wyo.

So a political couple who battled an independent counsel and congressional investigators find themselves again tussling with political opponents over the release of documents.

This time it is Democratic rival Barack Obama who is challenging Clinton to speed up the flow of records, arguing that someone who has largely pitched her candidacy based on her experiences in the White House owes the public a closer look. Republicans have joined in the criticism.

Documents that might shed light on the first lady's role in scandals such as the White House travel office firings, the fundraising scandals of the 1996 election and pardons received by people who made payments to her brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham remain closed. Attorney Hugh Rodham had been paid to lobby for a pardon, and later returned the money; the Clintons said they were not aware of the payment when the pardon was granted. Tony Rodham was employed as a consultant by a couple who received a pardon, but he has said his work was unrelated to it.

Also closed are papers that might provide insight into roles she apparently played in substantive policy debates such as the Clinton administration's reversal on welfare reform and its early reluctance to intervene in Bosnia and later decision to do so, noted Sally Bedell Smith, author of "For Love of Politics," a portrait of the couple's partnership in the White House.

Historical legacies

Asked about the delays at a recent debate, Clinton first noted that the decision was in the hands of her husband and then promised, "Certainly we'll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits."

In a subsequent interview with CNN, Clinton offered a more calibrated response, in which she asserted -- correctly -- that her husband "has done more than any other president" to open up his archives.

Indeed, every recent former president has struggled to shape his historical legacy, and White House papers typically trickle out slowly after a president leaves office.

"It's not that unusual at all," said presidential historian Robert Dallek, who noted that there are tapes Lyndon Johnson made of Oval Office conversations that have not been released nearly 40 years after his administration ended.

The current Bush administration's policies have made it easier for former presidents to delay disclosure of records. An executive order issued by Bush in November 2001 gives former presidents the power to delay release indefinitely while they review records for potential claims that the records are protected from disclosure. A federal district court struck down parts of the executive order last month, but the administration is considering an appeal.

Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, a private group that promotes disclosure of archival material, said the release of materials from all presidential libraries also has been slowed by "a culture of secrecy" that the Bush administration has encouraged since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an archival system that is overwhelmed by the explosion in the number of electronic records created in the information age. Archivists must process documents before they are released.

Overall, the wait time for President Clinton's records is not out of line with his recent predecessors. Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives, said the wait time for FOIA requests for non-classified materials is currently 2 1/2 years for the Reagan library and four years for the George H.W. Bush library.

Records to be withheld

While the Presidential Records Act calls for the release of White House papers five years after a president leaves office, Bill Clinton exercised an option he has under the law to withhold records in broad categories for 12 years -- a restriction every other former president also has placed on his records since Reagan became the first president whose papers were covered by the current law.

Clinton imposed somewhat less far-reaching restrictions on communications from his advisers than did his immediate predecessors. But the restrictions he ordered still effectively wall off most communications regarding the many controversies of his presidency until 2013.

Bill Clinton ordered records withheld if they touch on "a sensitive policy, personal or political matter" or include "advice [on] matters subject to investigation by Congress, the Justice Department or an Independent Counsel." He also ordered withheld "communications directly between the President, and the First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature."

"When you put all that together, the only things that are not excluded are the most trivial," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University Law School professor who has criticized both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The representative Clinton chose to review the papers before their release also has drawn attention from critics: Bruce Lindsey, a famously tight-lipped confidant of the former president who often managed damage control for the White House. Once archivists have processed documents for release, Lindsey has taken an average of an additional 237 days -- about eight months -- to review them, according to a Sept. 26 court filing. Lindsey's spokesman did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

The same court filing provided an estimate for when the archivists at the Clinton library would finish processing the first request for records from Hillary Clinton's office filed by the conservative group Judicial Watch.

Some 10,000 pages of appointment calendars for the first lady should go to Lindsey for his review in January 2008 -- shortly after the Iowa caucuses.