Records Under Wraps

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

DURING LAST month's Democratic Party debate in Philadelphia, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's opponents demanded that she release papers from the National Archives to allow the American people to judge whether her experience as first lady qualifies her to be president. Such campaign theatrics played into the well-worn narrative that the Clintons are secretive and slippery. But even if former President and Mrs. Clinton did what her opponents asked, the records would not be available in time for next year's election. It's a problem of lengthy review periods stretching into years that a bill from Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) would alleviate -- if only Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) would get out of the way.

Presidential records are off-limits for five years after a president leaves office. In addition, the Presidential Records Act of 1978 allows a former president to withhold six types of records for a further seven years, including confidential advice between the president and his advisers. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush each instructed the National Archives to withhold such documents for 12 years -- as did Mr. Clinton in 1994.

But even if Mr. Clinton today asked the National Archives to release confidential communications between him and the former first lady, disclosure could still be years away. That's because the six archivists at the Clinton library would have to sift through -- by hand -- more than 138 million pages in 36,000 boxes. And that's after they respond on a first-come-first-served basis to 287 pending Freedom of Information Act requests. Once the Archives scrubbed the records of information that cannot be released by law, the records would go to Bruce R. Lindsey, handler of Mr. Clinton's presidential records, who already is reviewing 26,000 pages. Then they would go to President Bush. A 2001 Bush executive order puts no time limit on the incumbent president's review.

Enter Mr. Lieberman, whose legislation would limit the review by the former and incumbent presidents to no more than 90 days. More important, it would roll back the unprecedented step of extending to their relatives and to the vice president the right to invoke executive privilege. That provision could put some presidential papers permanently out of public reach. The Lieberman bill, combined with more money for the Archives to help it keep up with the explosion of electronic documents, would modestly speed access to historical documents.

But the Lieberman bill can't get anywhere because Mr. Bunning has put a hold on it. He has said, "The president ought to have the right to withhold any records he chooses." Wrong. Those documents belong to the people of the United States. The sooner Mr. Bunning gets out of the way, the sooner the American people can see them.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company