Decoding the Clinton records ruckus
In her presidential campaign, Sen. Clinton argues that if elected she could hit the ground running because her days as first lady prepared her for the spotlight and the rigors of the Oval Office.
The voluminous records of President Bill Clinton's administration would seem to be a great source for proving those claims.
The trouble is, many of the documents haven't been released.
Ask Sen. Clinton about the backlog of public requests for White House records from the Clinton presidency, as moderator Tim Russert did during a debate in October 2007, and Clinton says it just takes time.
The National Archives, she said, "is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves." About the records on her failed effort to overhaul the nation's health care system in 1993, she said, "As far as I know, about what we did with health care, those are already available."
There's a lot to sort out here.
We'll start with what Clinton has said. She's right that the National Archives has a hand in the process of releasing records, and it's true that process can move slowly. But it's misleading to say that's the whole problem, because a significant part of the delay is that Bill Clinton retains the right to review all records before they're released. His representative, former White House adviser Bruce Lindsey, still has more than 20,000 documents to review for release.
As to the health care records, Sen. Clinton is wrong. Some of those records have not been released, including her correspondence with the president and her daily calendar.
Here's how the release of presidential papers generally works: When a president leaves office, the records of his administration go to the National Archives. After five years, the records are subject to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Professional archivists determine which records should be publicly available, and the current and former presidents can review them as well. The former president is given seven years — in Bill Clinton's case, until 2012 — to claim exemptions for his entire White House archive under the Presidential Records Act of 1978.
Because of the volume of records, the National Archive review takes place in batches. Thousands of pages of records are reviewed by archivists who then send them to the former president for his review. It used to be that former presidents had to claim an exemption for records within 30 days of receiving them, but ex-presidents no longer have an immediate timetable to respond.
Under the FOIA and the Presidential Records Act, exemptions include matters of national security and national defense; invasions of personal privacy such as personnel or medical records; federal appointments; proprietary commercial or financial information; and confidential communications between the president and his advisers.
Reviewing the records for exemptions takes time: The National Archives has 78-million pages of Clinton documents stored in 36,000 boxes stacked 10 shelves high at the library. According to the Archives, there are 287 requests for Clinton documents pending, and 57 have been completed since the records were opened for request in January 2006.
Eliminating the 30-day deadline, which President Bush did by executive order in 2001, has extended a lengthy process.
"They've essentially thrown sand in the gears of what was a rusty, broken-down system to begin with," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute that collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the FOIA.
Thanks to Bush's executive order, Bill Clinton or his designee — in this case Lindsey — has the right to review every document before its release, no matter how long it takes. Lindsey has received 26,000 pages from the archives and released 4,000 so far.
Since Bush changed the rules, wait times have increased substantially, Blanton said. Using the Reagan library as his example, the expected processing time for a request has risen from 18 months in 2001 to 6 years today.
Sen. Clinton is taking heat from her political rivals for not speeding up the release of the records.
"Her big answer on whether she would release the papers from her White House years was particularly troubling because she is running on her record as first lady as much as on her record as a senator," Sen. Barack Obama said in October 2007. "How can people fully judge that record if the documents from those years remain locked away?"
Critics also have made much of a 2002 letter former President Clinton sent to the National Archives that directs archivists to withhold correspondence between him and his wife, using the confidential advice exemption.
But Bill Clinton said recently that he intended to review those records and consider releasing them, not keep them from public view indefinitely. The letter's overall thrust makes his explanation somewhat plausible: The letter's point was to direct archivists to open up records on federal appointments that would normally be withheld.
Given the controversy, Bill Clinton could speed up the process by simply releasing the records with only the archivists' review. Or, he could increase the number of his representatives reviewing the records.
But once President Clinton releases all the records he has, there's no guarantee the National Archives could process other records in time for the election.
Judicial Watch, a conservative think tank and longtime opponent of the Clintons, has sued the National Archives in federal court to speed up its FOIA requests on the Clinton White House. Chris Farrell, a Judicial Watch investigator, says the argument that the archives is understaffed is no excuse.
"It's a yawner. Who doesn't complain about not enough money, not enough people, not enough time?" he said. "They need to prioritize."
Blanton, of the National Security Archive, splits the blame for the delay on the Clinton records into thirds: one-third to an understaffed National Archives, one-third to the Bush executive order, and one-third to the Clinton review.
But the process is not transparent, and it's difficult to tell from the outside when one set of delays ends and another begins.