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Clinton records locked up

THE NATION

Archivists say the former first lady's documents at her husband's presidential library won't be released until after the '08 vote. A conservative group has sued.

August 14, 2007|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

little rock, ark. - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her experience as a compelling reason voters should make her president, but nearly 2 million pages of documents covering her White House years are locked up in a building here, obscuring a large swath of her record as first lady.

Clinton's calendars, appointment logs and memos are stored at her husband's presidential library, in the custody of federal archivists who do not expect them to be released until after the 2008 presidential election.

A trove of records has been made public detailing the Clinton White House's attempts to remake the nation's healthcare system, following a request from Bill Clinton that those materials be released first. Hillary Clinton led the healthcare effort in 1993 and 1994.

But even in the healthcare documents, at least 1,000 pages involving her work has been censored by archives staff because they include confidential advice and must be kept secret under a federal law called the Presidential Records Act. Political consultants said that if Hillary Clinton's records were made public, rivals would mine them for scraps of information that might rattle her campaign.

"Those files -- that's the mother lode of opposition research," said Ray McNally, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento. "Opposition researchers would be very hungry to see what's there." Robert Shrum, senior political strategist in Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, said: "In 2 million pieces of paper, would opposition researchers hope to find one where she wrote a memo saying, 'I wish I'd never gotten involved in healthcare?' Sure. That's what they'd love to find."

At the Clinton library overlooking the Arkansas River, federal archivists clad in protective smocks are sorting through 80 million pages of records and another 20 million e-mails from a Clinton presidency that ended in January 2001. About 2 million of those pages concern the first lady's office.

A staff of 11 spends most of its time answering some 250 requests for documents submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. Requests are fulfilled largely on a first-come, first-served basis. Because the earliest requests involved other Clinton administration activities, the requests for the now-New York senator's records are further back in line, staff members said.

A list of Freedom of Information Act requests that have been completed by the archives staff includes one for a photo of Bill Clinton jogging with a "Yale Whiffenpoof Club insignia" on his clothing; another for various files on UFOs and flying saucers and one for the full name of the pastry chef who made a birthday cake for Chelsea Clinton.

Before documents are released, archives staff must read them and, by law, must redact material that they determine contains classified information, invades a person's privacy, reveals trade secrets, reveals confidential advice from presidential advisors or raises other concerns specified in the records law.

Asked how long it might be before Hillary Clinton's records are released, the library's chief archivist said it could take years.

"We're processing as fast as we can," Melissa Walker said.

Not fast enough, in the view of some who have been waiting. A conservative watchdog group called Judicial Watch filed suit against the National Archives last month, demanding the release of Hillary Clinton's diaries, telephone logs, daily planners and schedules. In the 1990s, the group filed suits against the Clinton administration that led to revelations about fundraising practices, including Democratic campaign donors being tapped for official trade missions. In the most recent suit, Judicial Watch said it had submitted its request more than a year ago and had received nothing, save for confirmation that the library possessed "a substantial volume" of such papers.

Staffing pressures have prevented the National Archives from keeping up with an expanding workload. In 2002, the agency employed 334 archivists. This year, the number is down to 301. That 10% drop came during a period when the National Archives assumed jurisdiction over two more presidential libraries: those of Clinton and Richard Nixon.

"If we have fewer trained personnel, we are unable to do as many preservation projects as we might like, and we're less able to serve the public in ways we would like to," said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives.

But advocates for open records said that had it made savvier use of technology, the Clinton library could be moving more quickly. Computers can sort through e-mail to flag classified documents, as distinguished from material that can be speedily released, said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a research institute at George Washington University.

"There's no reason why a load of a few hundred FOIA requests should absorb 11 full-time people perpetually," Blanton said, referring to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

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