Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Why White House Records Are Important

Jacob Heilbrunn’s essay, “Not My Fault,” in the New York Times Book Review, January 22, 2008, provides just one glimpse into why archivists and their allies should never give up the battle for the reasonable management, preservation, and access to presidential records. Heilbrunn starts off his assessment, noting, “Although secrecy and loyalty have been bywords of the Bush White House, its officials have been improbably loose-lipped upon leaving office, particularly in the memoirs they have written.” He then focuses in on the new memoir by Scott McClellan, W’s former press secretary, by placing such memoirs into their historical context: “What may, in fact, be most revealing about McClellan’s book is not what it discloses about the head of state, but what it says about the continuing devaluation of the political memoir as a literary form. Paradoxical though it may seem, even as these books have become more accusatory, they have also become less illuminating. While they were once useful and sometimes absorbing accounts of the inner workings of government at its highest levels, these books now tend to be exercises in apostasy, and their primary purpose seems to be to confer intellectual and moral independence, if not heroism, on their authors.”

While acknowledging that these memoirs are a form of “record,” Heilbrunn also suggests their limitations as historical evidence: “Enter Scott McClellan, who was a small player, after all. He issued no orders, formulated no policy. He wasn’t even in the room when the big shots assembled. . . .” Then he suggests just precisely why these kinds of memoirs are so limited in value: “In other words, McClellan wasn’t supposed to function as a press secretary, but to impersonate one. Still smarting, he has avenged himself by exercising the power of the powerless. He has gained the spotlight, if only for a few days, and at the same time has distanced himself from his former brethren.”

Archivists have long commented on the need to be more vigorous in putting pressure on the White House (and for that matter the National Archives) to keep the right records and to make them accessible in a timely fashion. Bruce P. Montgomery, “Presidential Materials: Politics and the Presidential Records Act,” American Archivist 66 (Spring/Summer 2003): 102-138 chronicles how, despite the Presidential Records Act of 1978, presidents have continued to try to do anything to keep control of their papers (Montgomery has a new book out on this subject which I have not yet had the chance to read). Timothy L. Ericson, “Building Our Own ‘Iron Curtain’: The Emergence of Secrecy in American Government,” American Archivist 68 (Spring/Summer 2005): 18-52, one of the great SAA presidential addresses, documents the growing secrecy of American government and asks where the archivists are and have been in resisting this. Thirty years before, J. Frank Cook wrote, “Because archivists and historians are an important conduit between public officials and the public, it behooves us not to place ourselves solely at the service of officials who are reluctant to inform the public fully” (“’Private Papers’ of Public Officials,” American Archivist 38 [July 1975]: 319). Others – such as Laura Millar, “An Obligation of Trust: Speculations on Accountability and Description,” American Archivist 69 (Spring/Summer 2006): 60-78 – question such roles (reminding us that not every archivist applauded Ericson’s address at the 2004 SAA meeting) as giving the “profession a level of responsibility that only the most egotistical narcissist would consider reasonable” (pp. 75-76).

However, what the McClellan book reminds us of is that without an archival profession energetically seeking to preserve a full documentary record and resisting excessive secrecy, all we will no about how our government works will be the salacious insider accounts offering conflicting evidence and inflated sense of their own roles. Alasdair Roberts, in his balanced The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government (New York: New York University Press, 2008), provides a bit of context about such memoirs: “The breakdown in internal discipline [within the Bush administration] was remarkable and led to a spate of tell-all books, often published within months of the events they described, that provided an unprecedented view of the internal workings of the Bush White House. Precisely because the disclosures were driven by discontent, the view was rarely flattering” (p. 158).

Archivists need to do better, of course. We need more vigilant – ok, maybe egotistical – archivists. Consider Michael Dobbs’s op-ed essay, “Our History, Off-Limits,” in the June 10, 2008 Washington Post, p. A23. Dobbs argues that “our declassification system has broken down. Historians,” he argues, “are waiting an average of seven years for replies from presidential libraries to their Freedom of Information Act requests.” To compound the problem, he notes, the current White House “cannot locate millions of e-mail records created during the months immediately before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.” Dobbs correctly demonstrates that this is not merely the problem of the present administration, but that it is the reflection of poor policies and practices going back many decades. Dobbs relates his own personal experience in how records he used just two years ago (concerning the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were recently closed pending a “security review.” Then he notes, “Some of these records date to World War II and have been pored over, copied and written about extensively. Many of the withdrawn documents can be viewed online. In addition to defying common sense, the reclassification initiative consumes valuable taxpayer resources that would otherwise be devoted to declassifying records. I am confident that nothing I saw while examining the Navy's missile crisis records could be of use to terrorists, but much would be of great interest to historians.”

How many times do archivists need to hear or read such accounts and sit idly by? Maybe here is one reason. Dobbs concludes, “In the meantime, morale is plummeting at the National Archives. Many knowledgeable archivists have quit or retired over the past couple of years. Those who remain speak fondly about Richard Nixon, a champion of glasnost compared with the Bush administration. Under Nixon, researchers gained access to most World War II records, in accordance with the 30-year waiting period for the release of all but the most sensitive secret documents. If the Nixon standards applied today, practically all the records relating to the Cuban missile crisis would be released. Instead, roughly half of these records are still inaccessible to researchers. Our history is locked away -- without any appreciable gains for the war on terrorism.” This is something to reflect upon.


At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Richard.

You know this subject interests me although perhaps it doesn't interest many others, even historians. Or if it does, they won't discuss it. What conclusions have you drawn from reports about the email situation at the White House? The National Archives does not take charge of White House records until an administration is out of office. As long as the President is in office, his subordinates handle records management.

As you know, while some of us in the archives and historian communities are interested in how the Presidential Records Act (PRA) works, the truth of the matter is, that statute is weak. What motivates people to create records and, once created, to permit them to be preserved -- or not? Realistically, in a situation where compliance is voluntary and based on an honor system (no checks by NARA possible while a President is in office), are there greater imperatives to ensure preservation of a paper trail or not? What is the effect of permitting early filing of FOIA requests after a President leaves office? Do you see a chilling effect?

I don't think activism or egotism (not sure what you meant by that in any case) in the archival community could affect that aspect of the issue. Having worked with White House records, I once focused mostly on the end of the life cycle of WH records -- how public access is handled once they come to NARA. Due to recent news stories, I've recently been giving more and more thought to the beginning of the life cycle and, keeping in mind the power of the principals, how to encourage the behaviors that affect record keeping positively rather than negatively.


At 3:18 PM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

NARA seems to always be in reactive mode, rather than a leadership one. I am sure it can attest to lots of real substantive reasons why it doesn't assume a leadership role in such matters, but they always seem to me to a bit hollow.

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good essay. It's nothing new that during and after every presidential administration, former aides write accounts of their experiences in the White House; partly to settle scores, make money, or white wash themselves.

The memoirs poured forth after the Nixon and Ford administrations. Despite Ford's efforts to regain the confidence of the American people, his administration was rife with internal feuds between the president's loyalists and left over Nixon aides. The internal feuding inside the G.W. Bush administration has been even more bruising. The stakes have been far higher--two wars, and issues involving the legality of extreme interrogation, rendition, Guantanamo, warrantless surveillance, and the rights of detainees (habeas corpus). Not everyone within the Bush White House has agreed with the Cheney-Addington crowd of pushing executive power at the expense of the other political branches. It's therefore not surprising that former aides would be trying to set the record straight regarding their own actions. They don't want to be associated with what they consider to be fundamental violations of the law and Constitution. (See Jack Goldsmith's book, The Terror Presidency).

Archivists should be speaking out about government secrecy and what this means for historical memory. The Bush administration came into office with a specific agenda to build a higher wall of secrecy around the White House, including among other things, eviscerating the Presidential Records Act, rolling back the FOIA, and classifying and reclassifying records at an alarming rate. The destruction of email was taking place from the first days of the administration. These are the kinds of issues that the archival profession should be exploring in the literature and in the public arena. It has nothing to do with narcissism and everything to do with professional responsibility.

At 8:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a follow on to my earlier comment, I think part of the problem lies in the fact that some of the issues are so complicated. I've spent 35 years working for the federal government. I spent 14 years working with the Nixon tapes and documents as a NARA employee. I've posted on the Archives List and elsewhere. But I find it challenging to explain all the the issues. Even when I do, many readers lack context.

I know a historian who once headed an academic history department. He later worked for the federal government. He told me that nothing in academia prepared him for how things work in government. I, on the other hand, only know bits and pieces of academic life having never been employed in a university setting. I believe that after they retire, more people who once worked at NARA need to do outreach to help provide context for a larger community on the archival and records management issues.



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