From the National Coalition for History column of the March 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
News Briefs, March 2009
Lee White, March 2009
On January 19, 2009, Federal District Court Judge Colleen Kollar Kotelly accepted Vice President Cheney’s claim that he was complying with the Presidential Records Act (PRA), thus denying efforts by historians and archivists to ensure the full body of Cheney’s records would be preserved. The PRA requires presidential and vice presidential records to be turned over to the National Archives (NARA) at the end of an administration.
Last year, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed suit in federal court to determine whether Vice President Cheney’s executive branch records were being properly preserved. Joining CREW as plaintiffs were the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and historians Stanley I. Kutler and Martin J. Sherwin.
Over the past few years, Vice President Cheney and the Office of the Vice President have claimed at different times and in different venues that they were not part of the executive branch, and it is such claims that precipitated the lawsuit. For example, on June 26, 2008, VP Chief of Staff David Addington testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the vice president belongs to neither branch but is attached by the Constitution to Congress. At other times claims were made by Cheney’s office that the vice president was part of the legislative branch given his constitutionally assigned role as President of the Senate.
The petitioners argued that without judicial intervention on January 20, 2009, a vast majority of Vice President Cheney’s records would not be transferred to NARA, as required by the PRA, for eventual release to the public, but instead would remain under the vice president’s custody and control.
The court granted discovery in the case to allow clarification regarding whether the defendants were, in fact, complying with the Presidential Records Act. CREW attorneys deposed Claire M. O’Donnell, deputy chief of staff to the vice president, who testified that the vice president and the Office of the Vice President were fully complying with their obligations under the Presidential Records Act.
The judge ultimately ruled that, “Plaintiffs were unable to rebut this representation through their discovery. The Court therefore has no basis on which to award Plaintiffs relief against the Vice President and the Office of the Vice President.”
National Archives Releases Initial Set of 9/11 Commission Records
On January 14, 2009, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) opened more than 150 cubic feet of records of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, an independent, bipartisan commission created by Congress. The records that were released represent 35 percent of the commission’s archived textual records.
NARA has posted the released Memoranda for the Record (MFR) online. The MFR series contains summaries of 709 interviews the 9/11 Commission conducted with federal, state, and local employees, individuals from the private sector, and scholars. These records also include information on the terrorists, past terrorist events, al Qaeda in general, and related subjects. Additionally, the records also contain information concerning the emergency responses to the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Because some of the 9/11 Commission records contain current intelligence, highly classified information, and sensitive privacy information, NARA decided to prioritize the processing of segments of the collection. The records in this initial release have been screened for personal privacy and national security. Summaries of the interviews with New York City first responders are closed under an agreement reached between New York City and the commission. Graphic personal details concerning the victims of the attacks have also been withheld.
There are approximately 570 cubic feet of 9/11 Commission textual records. NARA will continue the process of declassifying the remaining 420 cubic feet of textual records. NARA is also addressing the technical and classification issues surrounding the Special Media Records collection that contains 1,700 audiovisual items. NARA must also preserve electronic records totaling approximately 1.3 terabytes such as hard drives, servers, and e-mails. Prioritization of the remaining materials will be made after January 2009.
When the 9/11 Commission closed on August 21, 2004, it transferred legal custody of its records to the National Archives. Before it closed, the commission voted to encourage the release of its records to the fullest extent possible in January 2009. Because the commission was part of the legislative branch, its records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
National Park Service Director Mary Bomar Retires
National Park Service Director Mary A. Bomar retired on January 20, capping a 25-year federal career. Bomar became the 17th director of the National Park Service on October 17, 2006.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has not yet named Bomar’s permanent replacement.
—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His regular, informative, “Washington Update,” can be read at http://historycoalition.org where readers can also sign up to receive the update or to get an RSS feed about the latest post.