By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 5:53 PM
A conservative watchdog group has file a lawsuit claiming that 79 recorded conversations between then-President Bill Clinton and his friend and historian Taylor Branch should be made public, citing openness in government laws passed after Watergate.
Clinton quietly invited Branch to the White House, often late at night and confidentially, to confide in him a sort of running oral history of his presidency from 1993 to 2001.
Branch, author of a three-book history of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights era, did not keep the tapes, which he gave to Clinton at the end of each conversation. But Branch dictated his own recollection of the conversations, which became the basis for his 2009 book, "The Clinton Tapes."
Clinton kept the tapes but didn't use them much for his 2004 memoirs, "My Life."
On Thursday, Judicial Watch, a tenacious political opponent that launched countless probes of the Clinton administration, fired its latest legal salvo, nearly a decade after Clinton ended his second term. The group filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the District against the National Archives and Records Administration, saying it should maintain and release the tapes under the Presidential Records Act.
According to Judicial Watch, the National Archives, which also operates the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, has determined that the audiotapes "are not presidential records and therefore are not subject to request" under the PRA or the Freedom of Information Act.
The watchdog group disagrees, saying Branch in his own recounting describes Clinton offering his thoughts and commentary on official matters and conducting presidential telephone conversations with foreign leaders, senators and Cabinet secretaries in Branch's presence.
"Among the topics included on the Clinton tapes," the suit alleges, were whether Clinton should fire R. James Woolsey Jr., then the CIA director, and nominate Madeleine Albright for secretary of state; U.S. policies toward Haiti and Cuba; his reasoning for entering the North American Free Trade Agreement; and his side of a conversation with Secretary of State Warren Christopher concerning Bosnia.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton invoked reforms in presidential archive laws made after the Watergate break-in and resulting cover up led to Richard Nixon's resignation as president.
"These Clinton tapes are presidential records according to the law and they belong to the American people, not President Clinton," said Fitton, whose group filed its FOIA request on Oct. 7, 2009, to the Clinton library. "Obviously President Clinton has a vested interest in preventing the release of information that might prove embarrassing or incriminating. But these personal concerns do not trump the rule of law or the public interest."
Miriam Kleiman, a spokeswoman for the National Archives, said the agency had just seen the suit, adding, "Our prior response to Judicial Watch's FOIA request was that these are personal papers of President Clinton, and the matter is now in litigation."
Officials with the Clinton Foundation did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.