EXCLUSIVE: The Clinton library’s secret files!


A trove of Clinton White House records long processed for release remains hidden from public view at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock — even though the legal basis initially used to withhold them expired more than a year ago.

The papers contain confidential advice given to or sought by President Bill Clinton, including communications with then-first lady Hillary Clinton, and records about people considered for appointments to federal office.


About 33,000 pages of documents are involved, according to the National Archives, which runs the library.

Under the Presidential Records Act, such records can be withheld for up to 12 years after a president leaves office. However, at the 12-year mark, those broad restrictions fall away and the once-secret presidential papers are generally subject to disclosure. For the Clinton files, that milestone came and went in January 2013.

The long-sealed records pose a delicate series of choices for the Clintons, and even President Barack Obama. They could allow disclosure of the papers, fueling new stories about old controversies like Whitewater and pardons granted as the 42nd president left office in 2001. Or they could fight to keep some or all of the files secret, likely triggering a court battle and stoking concerns that the former president and his wife are unduly secretive.

Either way, it’s a potentially messy situation unfolding just as Hillary Clinton — widely considered a clear front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination — mulls over whether to make a second bid to return to the White House.


It’s not entirely clear who’s responsible for the delay, since the release process involves the library and National Archives headquarters, as well as lawyers for the former president and Obama.

Unlike collections in other hands, the withheld files at the Clinton Library are under the control of the federal government. Obama would have to choose whether to back any privilege assertion by the ex-president — a move that would be in tension with public statements Obama made as a candidate and as president, promising to improve access to presidential records. Even the long delays in accessing the files raise significant questions about whether reforms Obama imposed on his first day in office are working.

After a series of inquiries from POLITICO in recent days, an official with the current White House said Tuesday afternoon that a large batch of the formerly withheld Clinton records should emerge soon.

“The White House has cleared a significant number of P2/P5 Clinton documents … roughly 25,000 pages,” said the Obama aide, citing the legal designations originally used to withhold the records.

The aide, who asked not to be named, did not say precisely when that clearance was given. However, he added: “There have been no executive privilege assertions on Clinton materials to date.”

After several days of queries, a National Archives spokesman said Tuesday evening that some — but not all — of the previously withheld records have been approved for release.

“As of today, the representatives of the former and incumbent presidents have approved the release of a majority of the approximately 33,000 pages of Clinton presidential records that were previously withheld” under the advice and appointment provisions, said Chris Isleib, director of communications for the National Archives. “Our goal is to make these records available as soon as possible, but it will take the Clinton Library and [the National Archives and Records Administration] additional time to complete the logistics of making available such a large release, including being able to make the records available on the Web.”

Isleib said the White House had extended the deadline regarding the remaining records until March 26.

An aide to former President Clinton indicated Tuesday evening that the former president’s aides just learned of the current White House’s signoff on some of the records.

“We were notified today by the National Archives and Records Administration that the White House had cleared over 20,000 pages of previously closed Clinton administration documents, subject to an assertion of executive privilege by the former president. We informed NARA that President Clinton did not intend to assert privilege with respect to the documents,” said the aide, who asked not to be named.

Handling of historical records about the Clintons is already drawing increased scrutiny — attention that seems certain to grow in the coming months.

“Especially if you have a Hillary Clinton candidacy for president, there is going to be renewed interest in how these things are depicted, what’s public and what’s not. That’s a debate that’s about to be had,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor who conducted research at the Clinton Library and was frustrated that certain records relating to Clinton-era scandal management were off-limits.

Earlier this month, the conservative Washington Free Beacon published a pair of stories that sparked questions about history’s ability to haunt the former first lady. One delved into records kept by late Clinton friend Diane Blair detailing many of Hillary Clinton’s personal concerns about the crises that beset her husband’s presidency, including his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The other article noted that papers from Bill Clinton’s official files during his two terms as Arkansas governor are locked away from view at a public library in Little Rock.

The Free Beacon stories did not mention the much vaster collections at the Clinton Presidential Library: some 78 million pages of paper records and 20 million emails — only a tiny fraction of which are available for public research. However, the Republican National Committee quickly made such a link, portraying the undisclosed files as a political liability.

“The Blair archive wasn’t the only locked down library in 2008 — the Clinton Library was described as ‘Little Rock’s Fort Knox,’” an RNC email to reporters said, quoting a 2007 Newsday story.

As archivists at the Clinton Library have processed records for the past decade or so, they have dutifully marked the advice-related and appointment-related information so that it could be released with little additional work after the 12-year point.

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However, more than 13 months after the legal restrictions expired, there are no indications that any of the formerly restricted records are available for research.

“The obvious answer is they are trying to protect Hillary and there’s no question at all that there’s something in that … but the reality also is they don’t have the staff,” said Gettysburg College professor Shirley Warshaw, a frequent visitor to presidential libraries.

National Archives personnel have repeatedly complained that they lack the resources and personnel to complete legally required page-by-page reviews in a timely fashion. However, the formerly restricted Clinton records have already been reviewed and don’t require much new effort to prepare for release.

For at least some of the records, the National Archives has formally advised representatives of Bill Clinton and Obama of the planned release, giving both parties a chance to look over the records before they would become public — and giving both parties an opportunity to slow down the process.

In September, a top archivist at the Clinton Library told POLITICO the formerly restricted material was still “work[ing] its way through the notification process.”

If either Clinton or Obama objects to any release, they could try to assert executive privilege over the material, setting up a potential court fight.

The Clinton Library has not published a comprehensive list of the materials held back from prior document releases. However, information posted online indicates that a number of the withheld records come from Hillary Clinton’s office.




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