Democrats Seeking Release of Withheld Roberts Documents

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 25, 2005

After the release of about 60,000 documents detailing the work of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., Democratic senators are setting their sights on what was not in the huge cache of papers: more than 2,100 memos and letters that have been withheld by government archivists working in concert with the Bush White House.

The subjects of the Reagan-era documents have been released, but their contents for now have been withheld. Those topics are, Democrats say, at a minimum intriguing: Roberts commenting on presidential pardons, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and aspects of what would become known as the Iran-contra scandal. One of the still-secret memos is from the young White House lawyer to then-Reagan aide Patrick J. Buchanan in March 1986. The topic: aid to Nicaraguans fighting the leftist Sandinista government.

With Senate hearings two weeks away, Democrats privately say the documents that have come to light about Roberts's White House work from 1981 through 1986 probably do not contain disclosures that would threaten his confirmation to the Supreme Court. But some Democratic senators -- working with liberal special-interest groups opposed to Roberts -- consider the other documents potentially relevant and are pressuring archivists and the White House to release them before the public hearings begin.

Despite Democrats' suspicions about why so many documents about such politically sensitive issues were withheld, officials at the National Archives said there is a benign explanation.

There are three reasons the papers were withheld under federal records laws, according to Archives officials. They include preliminary judgments by archivists that information in them would improperly invade a person's privacy (such as revealing a Social Security number), jeopardize law enforcement operations or potentially harm national security.

Under the ordinary course of business, archivists black out individual words or sentences before releasing a document. In this case, National Archives official Sharon Fawcett said, the rush to release a large volume of documents quickly did not allow enough time for surgical redactions -- so the entire page was pulled.

The White House involvement in this process is unclear. Fawcett said White House officials are allowed to offer input during the review process, but she would not discuss their involvement. Senior White House officials said administration lawyers typically examine the documents after the archivists complete the initial review, and they insisted they have not asked for any papers to be withheld that archivists did not first flag.

Now, Fawcett said, archivists are more carefully examining each page to see whether portions could be selectively blackened and the rest of the information released.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, is taking these explanations at face value -- but is also insisting that officials at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. -- which is run by the National Archives -- and the White House move quickly to make most of the documents public.

In a letter sent Monday night to R. Duke Blackwood, the library's executive director, Leahy said senators need "accurate and complete information" before they vote on Roberts.

In a reply, Blackwood said he would review and make public as much as possible of the 478 pages that were withheld from an initial batch of documents released early this month. Archives officials said they expect that the same treatment will be given to more 1,700 pages not released last week. Separately, Democrats continue to press for more details of a folder titled "affirmative action correspondence" that is missing from the library.

This is part of broader Democratic strategy to wrench loose more information about Roberts's political and legal views when he worked for Reagan and President George H.W. Bush -- first as special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith, then in the White House counsel's office and finally as principal deputy solicitor general.

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