Clinton Records Watch

Friday, February 8, 2008

SEN. HILLARY Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) touts her experience as first lady, particularly her leadership of the health-care task force in the early years of the Clinton administration, as the foundation of her run for the Democratic Party nomination for president. So it's only natural that there would be a clamor for the release of White House records that would give a fuller accounting of her performance and judgment before the November election, assuming she succeeds in snaring the nomination. But there's a process that must be observed, and it should not be altered by the whims of politics.

The issue arises because of two actions taken last month by the National Archives. There was the clearance of 10,000 pages of Ms. Clinton's daily schedule as first lady for review by former president Bill Clinton's representative, Bruce R. Lindsey. And then there was the Archives' request that a judge throw out a lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based conservative legal group, which is demanding that an estimated 3 million pages of documents related to the health-care task force be released immediately.

Let's tackle the schedules first. The Archives honors Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on a first-come, first-served basis. Many entities, including Judicial Watch, requested Ms. Clinton's schedule and were grouped; once they got to the top of the queue, it took one archivist (there are only six at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum) about six months to clear the 10,000 pages for Mr. Lindsey's review. He now has up to 45 days, with the possibility of an indefinite extension, to do his review. The papers will then go to the White House, which will conduct its own review before notifying the Archives whether it can open the papers to the public. Deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel told us that the counsel's office will do so "in an expeditious manner."

While the schedules might be released before the November election, the same cannot be said for the health-care task force records. The multiple reviews by the Archives, Mr. Lindsey and the White House could take months, if not years. Judicial Watch filed its FOIA request in April 2006. Last November, the group filed suit in federal court to force the Archives to move its FOIA request to the front of the line.

We understand the frustration. Papers generated by a president's administration belong to the people of the United States and should be made available as quickly as possible. But the Archives was right to ask the court to toss the case. Siding with Judicial Watch would set an untenable precedent of forcing the Archives to decide which FOIA request deserves attention over another and would open the decidedly nonpartisan agency to charges of playing politics with its work. That mustn't happen.

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