Politicizing the Archives

Politics as usual? Or just another minor perversion of democracy — keeping facts from the people not because they need to be secret, but because their release might embarrass Republicans? It's unclear, but it doesn't look good.

National Coalition for History Washington Update Concern is growing within the archival and historical communities regarding the Bush administration's hoped for “fast-track” process to replace Archivist of the United States John Carlin with one of its own choosing — historian Allen Weinstein. According to informed sources, the administration hopes to short-circuit the normal confirmation process and see Weinstein confirmed through an “expedited” process. Their goal — place Weinstein in the position prior to the November election.

According to Hill insiders, the effort to replace Carlin is coming from the highest levels of the White House. Reportedly, Karl Rove who is widely viewed as one of the president's chief political advisors, if not his political mastermind and, Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President, want their own archivist in place for two overarching reasons: first, because of the sensitive nature of certain presidential and executive department records likely to be opened in the near future, and second, because there is genuine concern in the White House that the president may not be re-elected.

Indeed, the Society of American Archivists says it's concerned:

We are concerned about the sudden announcement on April 8, 2004, that the White House has nominated Allen Weinstein to become the next Archivist of the United States. Prior to the announcement, there was no consultation with professional organizations of archivists or historians. This is the first time since the National Archives and Records Administration was established as an independent agency that the process of nominating an Archivist of the United States has not been open for public discussion and input. We believe that Professor Weinstein must—through appropriate and public discussions and hearings—demonstrate his ability to meet the criteria that will qualify him to serve as Archivist of the United States.

When former President Ronald Reagan signed the National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984 (Public Law 98-497), he said that, “the materials that the Archives safeguards are precious and irreplaceable national treasures and the agency that looks after the historical records of the Federal Government should be accorded a status that is commensurate with its important responsibilities.” Earlier in 1984, when the National Archives Act was being discussed, Senate Report 98-373 cautioned that if the Archivist was appointed “arbitrarily, or motivated by political considerations, the historical records could be impoverished [or] even distorted.”

OK, this may be small beer compared to secretly taking money from appropriations to help the Afghanistani people and spending it to do planning for the Iraq campaign. But it looks ugly none the less.

For an example of what is at stake, see this item about the Nixon documents [link fixed to remove superfluous “.”]

More from the article at the National Coalition for History

Though it is not widely known, in January 2005, the first batch of records (the mandatory 12 years of closure having passed) relating to the president's father's administration will be subject to the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and could be opened. Another area of concern to presidential officials relates to the 9-11 Commission records. Because there is no mandatory 30-year closure rule (except for highly classified White House and Executive Department records and documents), all materials relating to the commission are scheduled to be transferred to the National Archives upon termination of the Commission later this year. These records could be made available to researchers and journalists as soon as they are processed by NARA.

Note that as these records are coming on stream this year, the line quoted above about how this is a contingency plan for losing the election is probably wrong. If the article's basic hypothesis is correct, then the administration needs its archivist in place sooner than the next inauguration.

In what appears to be a calculated move by administration officials, Rove and Gonzales have advanced the nomination of Weinstein fully aware that according to the “National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-497) the Archivist of the United States position is to be an appointment based “without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of the professional qualifications required to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office of the Archivist.” If Weinstein is confirmed and if President Bush is not elected, then President Kerry could be accused of “politicizing” the position should he try to replace Weinstein. In fact, though, the president's strategy in seeking to replace Carlin at this time rather than later injects an element of partisanship that could give John Kerry, should he be elected president in November, ample justification to replace Weinstein in the same manner that the White House is seeking to replace Carlin.

Carlin has made it widely known that he anticipated stepping down from the Archivist position in July 2005, upon his 65th birthday, upon the tenth anniversary of his appointment to the position, and upon the completion of his ten-year strategic plan for NARA. His intention not to step down until then has been stated in several public interviews including (reportedly), in a recent interview with CNN's Brian Lamb (26 November 2003 broadcast of “National Journal”). Months back, recognizing that Carlin intended to step down next year, archival organizations had begun to pull together qualification statements and a “highly qualified” list of names for the White House to consider in finding Carlin's replacement. What appeared to be an orderly procedure to pass power from Carlin to a new archivist in summer 2005 has now been short-circuited.

There are two basic ways for the Archivist of the United States to be replaced — resignation or replacement by the President. In his letter to NARA employees last week (see “Historian Allen Weinstein Slotted by Bush Administration to be Next Archivist of the United States” in NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE, Vol 10, #15 8 April 2004) Carlin stated that he was not resigning and he would not submit his resignation until a new archivist is appointed. There is no indication that the White House has any cause-related reason to replace Carlin and no reason was communicated to Congress when Weinstein's nomination was advanced formally last week. Some observers speculate that by refusing to resign until a new archivist is in place, Carlin is tacitly protesting what Hill insiders consider his “premature” removal.

If Carlin (a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton) had resigned outright, the decks would have been cleared for the White House to promptly replace him. However, that did not happen. It appears that the White House does not want any adverse publicity that would be generated by officially coming up with a “reason” for communicating to Congress its desire to replace Carlin as required by law (“the President shall communicate the reasons for any such removal to each House of the Congress”). Hence, by advancing Weinstein's nomination (which was received by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on 8 April) and by securing Weinstein's confirmation, the White House can then quietly force Carlin's resignation.

Owing to the controversy surrounding the anticipated resignation of Carlin, historians and archivists are calling for these and other issues to be addressed in Weinstein's confirmation hearing. To that end, some historical and archival organizations believe that John Carlin should also be invited to testify under oath regarding the pressure he is under and what he knows about his “premature” resignation. Governmental Affairs Committee staff, however, report that such a move would almost be unprecedented in a confirmation hearing.

On 14 April 2004, archival, historical, and other governmental watchdog organizations concerned both the politicization of the appointment process and the qualifications of the nominee, issued a “statement” calling for the Senate to conduct a confirmation hearing consistent with other positions of importance requiring Senate confirmation. The statement drafted by the Society of American Archivists and issued on behalf of several archival and historical organizations (see http://www.archivists.org/statements/weinstein.asp ) raises a concern about “the sudden announcement on April 8, 2004, that the White House has nominated Allen Weinstein to become the next Archivist of the United States.”

According to the statement that has the endorsement of the Society of American Archivists, the Association of Research Libraries, Council of State Historical Records Coordinators, Northwest Archivists, Inc., the Association of Documentary Editors, Midwest Archives Conference, the American Association for State and Local History, and the Organization of American Historians: “Prior to the announcement, there was no consultation with professional organizations of archivists or historians. This is the first time since 1985 that the process of nominating an Archivist of the United States has not been open for public discussion and input. We believe that Professor Weinstein must — through appropriate and public discussions and hearings — demonstrate his ability to meet the criteria that will qualify him to serve as Archivist of the United States….the decision to appoint a new Archivist should be considered in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the 1984 law.”

The statement also calls on the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs “to schedule open hearings on this nomination in order to explore more fully 1) the reasons why the Archivist is being replaced, and 2) Professor Weinstein's qualifications to become Archivist of the United States.”

This entry was posted in Politics: US: GW Bush Scandals. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Politicizing the Archives

  1. Pingback: Explananda

  2. bobcox says:

    Isn’t this the same Allen Weinstein who wrote “Perjury”? He certainly benefited from open records (FOIA) in that work. Is there any reason to think he isn’t a good potential Archivist? (Other than the fact that the Bush admin is pushing him, that is?)

  3. Pingback: Explananda

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *