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A New Archivist

Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A20

WHEN THE SENATE Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee meets today to vote on nominations, the attention will focus on that of Michael Chertoff to head the Department of Homeland Security. But the committee is also set to take up another nomination that -- while undoubtedly less central than the homeland-security post -- has gotten less attention than it deserves: that of historian Allen Weinstein to be the archivist of the United States.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the archivist job is about ensuring that fading documents behind thick glass are adequately protected from the elements. As important as that is, the position involves far more. The archivist oversees and -- in the best of worlds, facilitates, promotes and prods -- the release of far less musty government documents, material essential to understanding modern American history. In an age when the amount and type of information are proliferating, the archivist decides what information must be preserved and ultimately made public and how best to make it accessible.

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For example, at the dawn of the e-mail age, the archivist had to determine whether an administration's e-mail messages were government records that had to be maintained for posterity; luckily for historians and the public, it was eventually required that they be saved. The next archivist will inherit a similar question about videoconference tapes and transcripts.

In recognition of the sensitive role of the archivist, Congress created an independent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration; gave the archivist an unlimited term in office; and required that a president, to replace an archivist, must explain why. No such explanation has been offered by the Bush administration. It approached Mr. Weinstein about the job in September 2003, and a few months later pushed the current archivist, John W. Carlin, to resign, without providing any reason either to Congress or Mr. Carlin, a former Kansas governor named to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Mr. Weinstein, who spent a year during the early 1980s writing editorials for this page, is best known for his book "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," which concluded that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Mr. Weinstein drew fire from fellow historians for refusing to share his files for the book, and some critics have taken the episode as boding ill for Mr. Weinstein's devotion to openness. While we think their concerns could have benefited from greater scrutiny by the Senate -- which should have let opponents testify at his confirmation hearing -- they should not prevent Mr. Weinstein from being confirmed.

Much more troubling, however, is the Bush administration's still unexplained move to oust Mr. Carlin and install its own candidate. That heavy-handed and questionable process will make it all the more important for Mr. Weinstein, if he is confirmed, to demonstrate his independence and commitment to robust disclosure.

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