Sprehe: Politicizing the Archives

With John Carlin as the incumbent archivist of the United States, the Bush administration announced its intention to nominate conservative history professor Allen Weinstein to replace him. Carlin responded that he will stay in place until Weinstein is confirmed, an event that may not happen soon given the Senate confirmation process.

Weinstein's nomination creates many concerns. His published historical works have been severely criticized on scholarship grounds.

The criticism centers on his secrecy in not allowing others to view the records he relied upon for his two major works, "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case" and "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America — The Stalin Era," which he co-authored. Members of the Society of American Archivists and other professional societies who have attacked the nomination fear he will bring the same secrecy to the archivist's job.

The issues here, however, are not the individuals' personal qualifications but making the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) into a political football and the fate of presidential records.

When Congress established NARA as an independent agency in 1984, it tried to place the archivist beyond partisan politics. In fact, the law states that the archivist should be appointed "without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of professional qualifications." Congress intended for the archivist to serve through changes in administration. President Bush has trampled on congressional intent.

Early in his term, Bush issued an executive order effectively amending the Presidential Records Act so that Reagan administration records would not be released. They might contain damaging information about the first President Bush's role in matters such as the Iran-Contra affair. Many legal scholars call the order illegal.

The archivist issue is another effort by the White House to ensure that records from neither Bush administration see the light of day anytime soon.

The act states that presidential records be released after 12 years, which means that records from the first Bush's tenure could soon be released. But records from the current 9-11 Commission will go to NARA and it is unclear when and how they might be released.

In nominating Weinstein, this Bush administration seeks an archivist who will be obedient to its every wish, including possibly withholding the release of presidential records and other information regarding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

This action represents the administration's campaign to keep as much information from the public as possible. Such a preoccupation with information control only fuels suspicions that Americans would be very unhappy if they knew what White House officials were up to.

In Washington, D.C., what comes around goes around. The administration may win the moment by putting a secretive puppet into the archivist's position — if Weinstein can get Senate approval. But, eventually another administration will return sanity to NARA and the public will get the access it deserves.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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