The Paper Chase in Little Rock

By Jonathan Capehart
Saturday, March 1, 2008

LITTLE ROCK -- About once a week, Bruce Lindsey sits with his back to the Little Rock skyline in a glass conference room on the third floor of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library. Here, on the banks of the Arkansas River, he inspects the thousands of pages Bill Clinton has asked him to review, part of a cumbersome process that will eventually lead to their release to the public by the National Archives. At least one archivist sits with him.

"Generally, if he starts a particular FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request or he starts a block of pages . . . he's going to finish it," said Melissa Walker, then the no-nonsense yet cheerful supervisory archivist of the Clinton library, as I sat in the seat usually warmed by Lindsey. (Walker left the library last month.) "His primary goal is to review everything. He's very much about the business of what we're here for."

That business is getting those records out as soon as possible. You wouldn't think so from what's been said by Clinton critics such as Judicial Watch, which is suing to get records from Hillary Clinton's health-care task force, or the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, which continues to assert that the former president and current presidential hopeful are intentionally keeping records under wraps. Such behavior would be in keeping with the Clintons' reputation for secrecy. But it wouldn't be true.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 made documents generated by a president and his administration, starting with Ronald Reagan, the property of the United States, under the control of the National Archives. Five years after an administration ends, the public can seek access to those papers through the Freedom of Information Act. Former presidents can block access to six types of documents, including confidential advice to the president from his advisers, for up to 12 years. A 2001 executive order by President Bush gummed up the process by giving the incumbent president and the former president in question unlimited review. Last October, a federal judge invalidated the indefinite review for former presidents.

Contrary to some recent reports, a 2002 letter that Bill Clinton sent the archives didn't order it to "withhold" documents related to communications between him and Hillary Clinton. Rather, the letter asked the archives to ease restrictions on its records review and processing so that more information could be released faster. Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper says that Clinton's use of the word "withholding" simply meant he wanted to see those particular records before they were released. Still, the process for making documents public remains cumbersome. There are 300 pending FOIA requests at the Clinton library that will be answered on a first-come, first-served basis. Just 72 have been processed since January 2006.

"There's nothing simple about what we do," Walker said. "It's more complicated than just going through a box and pulling [the record] out and saying, 'Here you go.' You've got to find it first."

Finding it means tapping into a database of what's filed in the boxes and then going to a cavernous basement storage area that, with its white walls and massive gray doors, brings to mind the set of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Rows of compact shelving are stacked with acid-free boxes full of Clinton administration papers. Rows 16 and 17 hold "Gene Sperling, National Economic Council." Row 37 has "White House Travel Office." Row 45 holds "Presidential Correspondence." Rows 97 and 98 contain "Ira Magaziner, Domestic Policy Council."

Once the papers have been gathered by hand, they are put into another folder and yet another box by an archivist who writes a "filing aid" detailing the contents of the box. This can take weeks or months, depending on the size of the FOIA request. Then the library notifies Lindsey, who makes his way to the conference room in Little Rock for the paper-release ritual.

"The folder stays on the table," Walker said. "One folder open at a time." Using a filing aid, Lindsey goes through the records one page at a time. Walker is also there, following along with her own filing aid. "It's my obligation to protect the records," she said. When I joked that this precaution was to ensure that Lindsey didn't pull a Sandy Berger, Walker was not amused. The archivists' worries aren't only that someone might stuff papers into his socks. She later said, "We're just as concerned about someone trying to put something into the record as we are about someone trying to remove something from the record."

The Clinton library has 10 archivists, each with a host of other duties. Dealing with the FOIA requests here has claimed the equivalent of six full-time staffers. The preparation, baby-sitting and processing eat up enormous amounts of time and scarce resources. So calling on the Clintons to release their papers makes for great campaign theater. But it's theater that has no bearing on reality.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address

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