Something is going on with a political appointment at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Indeed, at least nineteen professional organizations are clamoring for an investigation. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the American Library Association, and even the Society of American Archivists have joined with other groups to protest President Bush's surprise nomination of historian Allen Weinstein as the next Archivist of the United States.
"This is the first time since the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was established as an independent agency that the process of nominating an Archivist of the United States has not been open for public discussion and input," the groups said in a statement. They called for public comment and hearings. The National Coalition for History (NCH), a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, DC, said in its newsletter that the White House might be eager for a switch before the November elections because of the "sensitive nature of certain presidential and executive department records."
NARA is an independent agency of the federal government with more than 3000 employees and 34 facilities nationwide. Its mission is to ensure "ready access to essential evidence that documents the rights of the American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience."
On April 8 of this year, John Carlin, the Archivist of the United States (head of the National Archives and Records Administration), announced his resignation to "begin looking for other career opportunities." You can read his statement in the April 12, 2004 edition of this newsletter at http://www.eogn.com/archives/news0415.htm#ArchivistoftheUnitedStatestoRetire.
Note that he is not retiring, as reported in other places. In his public statement, it is clear that John Carlin plans to continue working someplace, even if not at the National Archives.
The head of the National Archives and Records Administration is a political appointment. The President nominates the person, and the appointment requires Senate approval. Once approved, the Archivist of the United States serves more or less forever. The Archivist may resign, of course. Also, the President may remove the Archivist; but, if that action is taken, the President must inform Congress of the reasons for removal.
Keep in mind that John Carlin was appointed by Bill Clinton. It would not be unusual for a later president to want to replace a political appointee made by an earlier administration. However, a plausible public statement would be needed as to why the person was to be forcibly removed. It appears that John Carlin has done a good job as Archivist, so there is no cause for his forced removal.
Shortly after Carlin's statement that he was resigning, President Bush nominated Allen Weinstein, a historian of Soviet espionage, to replace Carlin. In Weinstein's confirmation hearings some facts embarrassing to the White House leaked out. It seems that Carlin's resignation wasn't voluntary.
In a July 22 letter to committee member Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Carlin revealed that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales requested his resignation. When Carlin asked why he was being asked to resign, "no reason was given" by Gonzales. Levin then suggested that the Bush administration, in asking for Carlin's resignation, was seeking to skirt its legal responsibility to inform Congress of the reasons for Carlin's removal. By sending a delegate to ask for Carlin's "voluntary" resignation, President Bush did not need to explain why Carlin was being removed. Senator Levin then asked the Governmental Affairs Committee to request that Bush explain his reasons for Carlin's removal.
The surprise move to replace the archivist violates the spirit of a 1984 law that sought to depoliticize the office. The archivist, according to that bill, is not a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of the President, and his term is not tied to the term of the President, although the President can ask for his resignation. A House report in 1984 said Congress "expects" the nomination of a new archivist "will be achieved through consultation with recognized organizations of professional archivists and historians."
In the current situation, there has been no such consultation. In fact, the highly-respected Society of American Archivists and "other organizations of professional archivists and historians" are protesting Weinstein's nomination, claiming that he consistently has failed to abide by accepted scholarly standards of openness.
Critics of the Weinstein appointment have suggested that John Carlin was removed in an effort to keep sensitive presidential documents from becoming public. White House officials are said to be anxious over the 9/11 Commission records, which are scheduled to be transferred to NARA upon termination of the commission. In addition, the records of George H. W. Bush could be opened in 2005. However, a controversial George W. Bush executive order could allow the elder Bush to withhold many of those records indefinitely.
Immediately after taking office in January 2001, George W. Bush signed an executive order that stopped the legally-required release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but he did not stop the future release of papers from the Bill Clinton presidency. Then, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush issued an even more sweeping secrecy executive order. He granted former Presidents and Vice Presidents or their surviving family members the right to stop release of historical records, including those related to “military, diplomatic or national security secrets.” Bush’s order stripped the Archivist of the United States of the power to overrule claims of privilege from former Presidents and their representatives. These actions were taken by executive order; there was no review by Congress.
Nominee Weinstein was asked about Bush's executive orders. He told the committee that, as a private citizen, he had concerns about Bush's executive orders because it tilted the balance in favor of "greater confidentiality and less public disclosure." As the National Archivist, however, he testified that he would feel compelled to defend the executive orders against lawsuits seeking to overturn them.
Many in Washington believe that George W. Bush is hedging his bets in case he loses the election in November. By forcibly removing John Carlin and replacing him with a political appointee who will serve well into the next administration, Bush essentially ensures that the National Archives and Records Administration will not pressure a new administration into reversing his executive orders that keep documents out of the public view. The President hopes to accomplish this by appointing a loyal political hack who has an established record of opposing standards of openness.
Meanwhile, John Carlin remains in his current position and has asked to stay at least four more months to oversee certain initiatives.
You can read more about Allen Weinstein's violation of the code of ethics of the International Council on Archives at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml%3Fi=20040517&s=wiener