Groups sue Cheney over records
A coalition comprised of a watchdog group along with historians and archivists filed a lawsuit today in federal court to ensure that records created by Office of the Vice President will be handed over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at the end of the Bush administration.
The organizations say they are worried that the vice president will not hand over official records to NARA as he leaves office, leaving the public without a record of policy decisions and official communications made during the Bush administration and causing “a gaping hole in our national history,” according to documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The groups want the court to rule that guidelines that exclude the vice presidential records from the Presidential Records Act (PRA) violate the law. In addition to filing suit, the groups have also sought a preservation order that would require the vice president to preserve all records while the court considers the case.
The plaintiffs point to statements by administration officials, language in a 2001 executive order and refusal to cooperate with NARA oversight as evidence that the vice president is not complying with his responsibility to maintain records under the PRA.
The PRA says vice presidential records should be treated in the same manner as presidential records. The law requires that presidential records are kept to make sure that official work is “adequately documented.”
In an e-mail response, Jamie Hennigan, a spokesman for Cheney, said the Office of the Vice President “currently follows the Presidential Records Act and will continue to follow the requirements of the law, which includes turning over vice presidential records to the National Archives at the end of the term.”
The complaint points to the use of the term “the executive records of the Vice President” to describe vice presidential records subject to the PRA in a 2001 executive order issued by Bush. The plaintiffs allege that the wording is at odds with the PRA, and the vice president’s office is interpreting its responsibilities under presidential records laws “so narrowly that it would improperly exclude the vast majority of his papers”
In addition to suing the Office of the Vice President, the Executive Office of the President and Cheney in his official capacity, the groups are also suing the head of NARA and that agency itself.
In an e-mail today, a NARA spokeswoman said the agency has been in conversation with the vice president’s office and the vice president's papers will remain at the National Archives in Washington.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), one of the groups in this lawsuit, last year sued the White House and NARA for allegedly failing to archive millions of e-mail messages as required by federal record laws.
“We know that millions of e-mails have been missing…we already know that there is at least that much of a gap,” said Anne Weismann, CREW’s chief counsel, on a conference call that announced the lawsuit. “As far as what the vice president has done in the seven plus years since he has been in office it’s anybody’s guess – again because the Presidential Records Act doesn’t require him to be at all accountable publicly until he leaves office.”
The Bush administration has questioned the veracity of a study, which identified e-mail archiving gaps, and has said it believes any missing e-mail messages can be recovered from backup tapes. The case remains ongoing.
Under the PRA, presidential records are handed over to NARA at the end of the administration and then made publicly available at least five years later.
Weismann said the groups filed the lawsuit now because the vice president has become more vocal over the past six months in his contention that his office is not part of the executive branch. That interpretation, the plaintiffs said, would have serious consequences for the public.
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.