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Will They Be the National (Secret) Archives?

by Jon Wiener Jan 23, 2005

Jon Wiener

On Inauguration Day, January 20, the classified papers of  former President
George H. W. Bush became eligible for release —  as the law specifies, 12
years after he left office.  Historians and journalists are hoping those
papers will shed more light on the first President Bush's decision not to
pursue Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq during the first Gulf
War in 1991.  They could also resolve questions about Bush Senior's pardons
of the principal figures in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal of the
mid-1980s.

Overseeing the release of those papers is the responsibility of the
Archivist of the United States — currently John Carlin, the former
Democratic governor of Kansas appointed in 1995 by President Clinton. But
President George W. Bush wants to replace him and nominated a new archivist
last May, historian Allen Weinstein. Weinstein is author of two books on
Soviet espionage in the United States and until recently headed the Center
for Democracy in Washington. The nomination suggested to many that the White
House wanted its own man supervising the release of the president's father's
papers.

But the Weinstein nomination ran into trouble in the Senate after almost
two dozen organizations of historians and archivists expressed concern.
Despite Republican control of the Senate, Weinstein was not confirmed. So
for the time being Carlin remains archivist, in charge of release of the
first wave of the Bush Senior presidential papers. The new Senate will take
up the Weinstein nomination again, probably in a month or two.

The fight over Weinstein is part of a larger battle over White House
secrecy, this time focused on the National Archives. Most people know the
National Archives only as the place you take the kids to see the Declaration
of Independence. The archivist, however, is responsible not only for
preserving government records of the past, but also for making them
available to the public. This latter role is crucial to the health of our
democracy, which requires access to information about government and what it
has been doing. But officials often prefer to work in secrecy.

The historians' and archivists' organizations objected to the White House
nomination of Weinstein in part because the Bush people acted as if the
archivist serves at the pleasure of the president. Congress, however, tried
to make the office nonpolitical by specifying in a 1984 law that the term of
the archivist was indefinite. Under the law, archivists can serve as long as
they want; if the president wants to replace one, the president must show
cause. Bush did not do that when he moved to replace Carlin with Weinstein.
This prompted the historians and archivists to ask what Carlin had done to
warrant his removal.  The White House never bothered to offer an
explanation.

There's a good reason why the archivist should not be a political
appointee. It's because he faces decisions with major political
consequences, such as releasing — or withholding —  the Nixon White House
tapes, the Kennedy Assassination Records, and now the files of the 9-11
commission. Decisions about access to these materials should be nonpartisan.
That's why Congress made the archivist's term indefinite.

Weinstein personifies many of the problems of secrecy in Washington today:
his record on access to documents is bad. He has refused to release to other
scholars his interviews and his copies of Soviet espionage documents. That
violates the American Historical Association "Statement on Standards" — as
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs
Committee and a Republican, noted in Weinstein's confirmation hearing last
July. It's almost as if the people at the White House said, "Here's a
historian who has stonewalled requests for access to his own documents for
25 years — he's our kind of guy."

Secrecy is an issue now because, in 2001, President Bush issued a new
Executive Order governing presidential records. Now the president has the
right to veto the release of presidential papers ordered by the National
Archives under the 12-year rule, even if they have passed the
declassification review. Former presidents also have been given the right to
veto release of documents, as do the family and heirs of former presidents.
Weinstein told the Senate committee that, if confirmed, he would go to court
to defend the Bush order on withholding presidential papers. In the fight at
the National Archives between democracy and secrecy, right now secrecy is
winning.


Jon Wiener, a contributing editor of The Nation, is the author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (2005), and a writer for the History News Service. He is also a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine.