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Pressures Archivists Face

Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page A14

The Feb. 7 editorial "A New Archivist" overlooked the pressures someone in this position may face.

I once was an archivist responsible for screening for public release the Nixon historical records held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In 1992 I testified in a court case about a dispute involving Richard M. Nixon's attempts to limit disclosures. I and several other archivists had met with John T. Fawcett, an NARA official, in 1989 to protest a request we had received to delete information from Watergate special prosecutor tapes.

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We argued for referral to a high-level board established by regulations to consider deletions the former president wanted. We sought the protection lawmakers had provided to insulate us from backdoor pressure, but we failed in our pleas. It was as if Congress had never spoken.

The NARA inspector general later looked at the dispute, recording in a document released under the Freedom of Information Act how my colleagues expressed anguish about being asked to take actions that "would mislead the public."

Mr. Nixon was a party to the 1992 court case. Tellingly, the Justice Department argued in a pleading that because no researchers had challenged the earlier opening of Watergate tapes, belated allegations about their handling were moot. But researchers could not have protested Mr. Nixon's role because the government had concealed it.

Was our experience an aberration, or will power continue to trump regulations?



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