When author Sally Bedell Smith was researching her new book about Bill and Hillary Clinton's White House years, she flew to Little Rock to visit the one place she thought could be an invaluable resource: the new William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Smith was hoping to inspect records that could shed light on what role the First Lady played in her husband's administration. But Smith quickly discovered the frustrations of dealing with a library critics call "Little Rock's Fort Knox."
An archivist explained to Smith that the release of materials was tightly controlled by the former president's longtime confidant Bruce Lindsey. Could she look at memos detailing the advice Hillary gave Bill during debates over welfare reform? Smith asked. No, the archivist said, those memos were "closed" to the public because they dealt with "policy" matters. What about any records that show what advice Bill gave his wife about her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign? Those, too, were closed, the archivist said, because they dealt with "political" matters. "He essentially told me I had no chance of getting anything," says Smith, whose book, "For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton, the White House Years," hits the bookstores this week.
The response Smith got isn't unusual. Nearly three years after the Clinton Library opened—and more than 21 months after its trove of records became subject to the Freedom of Information Act—barely one half of 1 percent of the 78 million pages of documents and 20 million e-mail messages at the federally funded facility are public, according to the National Archives. The lack of access is emerging as an issue in Hillary's presidential campaign: she cites her years of experience as First Lady as one of her prime qualifications to be president. Like other Democratic candidates, she has decried the "stunning record of secrecy" of the Bush administration; her campaign Web site vows to bring a "return to transparency" to government. But Clinton's appointment calendar as First Lady, her notes at strategy meetings, what advice she gave her husband and his advisers, what policy memos she wrote, even some key papers from her health-care task force—all of this, and much more documenting her years as First Lady, remains locked away, most likely through the entire campaign season. With nearly 300 FOIA requests pending for Clinton documents, and only six archivists at the library to process them, Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper says it is "really hard to predict" if any of this material will be released before the election.
Bill Clinton has tried to cast blame for the backlog on the Bush White House. "Look, I'm pro-disclosure," Clinton said in a testy exchange with reporters during a recent press conference. "I want to open my presidential records more rapidly than the law requires and the current administration has slowed down the opening of my own records." But White House spokesman Scott Stanzel tells NEWSWEEK the Bush White House has not blocked the release of any Clinton-era records, nor is it reviewing any. (Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, the former president and the current president get to review White House records before they are disclosed. Either one can veto a release.) Ben Yarrow, a spokesman for Bill Clinton, says the former president was referring "in general" to a controversial 2001 Bush executive order—recently overturned, in part, by a federal judge—that authorized more extensive layers of review from both current and former presidents before papers are released. (Hillary's campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.)
But documents NEWSWEEK obtained under a FOIA request (made to the Archives in Washington, not the Clinton library) suggest that, while publicly saying he wants to ease restrictions on his records, Clinton has given the Archives private instructions to tightly control the disclosure of chunks of his archive. Among the document categories Clinton asked the Archives to "consider for withholding" in a November 2002 letter: "confidential communications" involving foreign-policy issues, "sensitive policy, personal or political" matters and "legal issues and advice" including all matters involving investigations by Congress, the Justice Department and independent counsels (a category that would cover, among other matters, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and the pardons of Marc Rich and others). Another restriction: "communications directly between the President and First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature."
Archives officials say Clinton is within his legal rights. But other Archives records NEWSWEEK reviewed show Clinton's directives, while similar, also go beyond restrictions placed by predecessors Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, neither of whom put any controls over the papers of their wives. This undoubtedly reflects the larger policy role Hillary played in her husband's administration. Still, some analysts are surprised at the broad range of documents Clinton asked the Archives to withhold. "It does sound pretty expansive. You start to wonder what's not included," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group suing the Clinton library for failing to respond to its FOIA requests, is struck by the former president's restriction on records relating to his and his wife's families. That, he says, blocks disclosure of records relating to Roger Clinton, the former president's half brother, and Hillary Clinton's two brothers, Tony and Hugh Rodham, both of whom were involved in controversial business deals and efforts to secure last-minute pardons later investigated by Congress. But John Carlin, a former Archives chief (and a Clinton appointee) who got the 2002 letter from Clinton, didn't blame the former president. "Given all that they went through in office," he says, the restrictions Clinton placed were "not surprising." Who knows, he asked, how the papers might be used by political foes? That's a question the Clintons don't want answered—at least not before next November.