Digging Into Hillary's Records

Aside from the obvious, one of the factors making Hillary Clinton's presidential run so historic is her behind-the-scenes role in another administration: her husband's. Last week a lawsuit from the government watchdog group Judicial Watch compelled the release of more than 10,000 pages of Clinton's schedule as First Lady between 1993 and 2000. The group is now pressing for more, citing the 1978 Presidential Records Act that requires executive branch records to be released within 12 years.

Critics have claimed that the Clintons are dragging their feet to delay the revelation of what could be significant information about how the New York senator might behave in the Oval Office. Clinton and her aides have maintained that these things take time, saying they're progressing swiftly and meeting all legal obligations. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone talked with historian Joan Hoff, former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, about the pace at which the Clintons are moving and how it compares to the record release timetables of past administrations. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How fair is the criticism that the Clintons are releasing records too slowly?
Joan Hoff:
I think it's fair to the extent that it applies to all presidential libraries. The unfortunate fact about presidential libraries is that they want to protect the president whose papers they're governing. None of them has ever processed the controversial papers first.

With laws governing public records, former presidents can set the pace for what gets released and when?
Yes they can. There's nothing in the 1978 [Presidential Records] Act law indicating that the controversial papers have to be processed first. And every presidential library going back to Roosevelt has followed this idea of the least controversial processed first.

How are things different for Hillary as a former First Lady and now a candidate?
Well, her papers are part of her husband's presidential papers, so there's no difference.

So what's the legal timeline for when documents specifically related to her should be released?
The 1978 act said that after 12 years all papers, including confidential advice to the president, are supposed to come out. There's really no difference in terms of the regulations governing hers as opposed to governing his.

But really, it's only been just over seven years since the end of Clinton's presidency, so we could be waiting another five to six years?
Technically speaking, it depends on how far you're going back. Most of these criticisms go back to Clinton's first term, in 1993 and 1994. From that point they've exceeded the 12-year limit; it's been more than 14 years.

The release of Hillary's records was compelled by a lawsuit. The group suing, Judicial Watch, is asking for more.
Yes, they want the health records. And detailed tax records will also be available, assuming the archivists in Arkansas go along with the requests.

What could the Clintons be afraid of coming out?
Well, Hillary makes claims to her roles, like family and children legislation, that records show she wasn't very involved in. And particularly her criticism of NAFTA now is belied by the fact that back then she was pushing for NAFTA.

Hillary Clinton's schedule as First Lady released last week shows a lot of redactions. Why?
One of the federal archives standards for review is to protect privacy. But it's one of those standards that can be misused, not so much by the archivists themselves as they process them but by the person the president designates as the reviewer of the records. That person in this case is doing it under the watchful eyes of President and Mrs. Clinton. Once the archivists go in and classify what they think is private, the president's reviewers go into that list and add to the redactions. Almost half of the pages released have some redaction in them, basically on the grounds of privacy.

Is that common for official documents from other presidents?
Oh yes, that's ordinary.

How do historians get around things like that?
Researchers have been complaining about the lack of progress of the release of Clinton records long before this campaign came up. But there is a formal review process; you can file a form. I did it for [Richard] Nixon, and it took years. It's a very cumbersome process, and there's no way to get around it quickly.

If you're a public figure, what counts as a public record?
Everything they produce related to their activities as president becomes public. Before 1974 and the Nixon fiasco, these papers were considered to be the private records of the president. The 1974 act made the Nixon papers public; the logical follow-up in 1978 was to make all presidential papers public, beginning with Reagan.

Everything? Even a thank-you note the president wrote?
Everything. Absolutely everything. Even things produced by the executive branch outside of the White House.

How long after leaving office do most administrations start releasing records?
Twelve years was the limit. But President Bush signed in 2001 an executive order that indicated not only incumbent presidents but former presidents and even vice presidents could block the release of this info after 12 years. I think that Bill Clinton's 2002 letter to his own library about extending the confidentiality of the communications between him and his wife was based on Bush's executive order.

President Clinton presumably wanted to hold them indefinitely?
He wanted all communications during his term between him and Hillary extended to 2012.

That sounds oddly convenient, at the end of what could be Hillary's first term.
Yeah, it's just a joke. But it's not just the Clintons. The only library that complied with all these things was the Ford library, basically because there were so few controversial materials in the papers.

What's the process like for other executive branch members, like vice presidents and cabinet members?
It's a very similar process with similar timetables for deciding what could fall under national security and what is private.

Beyond tax and health records, what else could come out about Sen. Clinton as First Lady in the next few months?
I don't think we'll get anything before the election. The people processing the requests take them on a first-come-first-served basis, and they're claiming it takes a long time to go through page by page, which is true. You're not going to get anything before the election, unless some inside mole leaks information.

That sounds interesting. How likely is that?
It could happen but it's unlikely. They're professional people. More likely the political orders will come down from the top that the papers shouldn't be processed.