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How Classified Presidential Library Records are Released to the Public

January 9, 2017

libraryThis a version of this article originally appeared in The Federalist, Newsletter of the Society for History in the Federal Government.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 (PRA) established that the papers of U.S. Presidents legally belong to the American people. According to the law, the Archivist of the United States assumes responsibility for the custody, control, preservation, and accessibility of Presidential records after the President leaves office. Moreover, the Archivist of the United States has the “affirmative duty to make such records available to the public as rapidly and completely as possible.”

This is the first contribution of a regular Federalist column discussing the activities and new document releases of the Presidential Libraries.

Presidential records are made available to the public through each administration’s Presidential Library, which are located across the United States. The libraries themselves are often federal and private amalgamations. For example, while all of the records at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library’s recreation of the Oval Office—and its other museum exhibits— were financed by private funding through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

The PRA states that the public can request Presidential records “in accordance” with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) beginning five years after the President leaves office. In addition to the exemptions under FOIA in which documents can be withheld (except, wisely, for FOIA’s Exemption Five), the PRA defines six additional exemptions through which Presidential documents can be withheld for 12 years after the President leaves office. After this 12-year limit, both the former President and current President also retain the ability to invoke executive privilege and stop the release of information, though this privilege has rarely been used.

The cover page of the PFIAB report, previously classified as "TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON". It took over 12 years to win this document's release from the George H.W. Bush Library.

The cover page of the PFIAB report, previously classified as “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON”. It took over 12 years to win this document’s release from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.

Unfortunately, the release of Presidential records is very rarely “rapid,” especially if the documents were previously classified, as a substantial portion of those sought by researchers are. In most cases, a researcher must file a FOIA request with the Library for the record they are requesting. Then, if the Library determines the record is classified (a process that often takes longer than a year), the requester must file a second Mandatory Review request with the federal agency that claims “equity” of the record. Recently, the National Security Archive received a response to a Presidential record request which took over 12 years to process. A more efficient system would empower the Libraries themselves, or perhaps the National Declassification Center, to more quickly declassify these historic documents.

Additionally, Presidential Libraries are embracing digital platforms to make their records available to the widest possible audience. While all Libraries are moving in this direction, some are better-utilizing digital resources than others. The best I have seen to date is the George H.W. Bush Library which has excellent, expansive, and well organized online collections of the President’s memcons and telcons with foreign officials, National Security Council Meetings, NSC Deputies meetings, and much more. Other libraries would do well to follow the Bush Library’s digital lead.

Future columns will alert readers to Presidential Library document releases and appraise them. If you have any observations, questions, or hot releases, please send them my way via twitter: @nsanate.

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