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The Haunted Archives | The Nation

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The Haunted Archives

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Who should control access to the archives of the 9/11 Commission after it closes up shop in August? The commission's records will go to the National Archives. On April 8 the Bush Administration quietly pushed the current archivist, John Carlin, a Clinton appointee, to step down. To replace him, Bush will nominate Allen Weinstein, a historian who has been criticized for failing to abide by accepted scholarly standards of openness (more details will appear in an upcoming Nation profile). Weinstein headed, until recently, the Center for Democracy, a think tank whose board is studded with GOP heavyweights, including Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Richard Lugar, House Republican whip Roy Blunt and Henry Kissinger.

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The national archivist is crucial in a democratic society: He preserves our history and makes government records available to the public. He should also serve as an advocate for greater openness. The Senate is required to confirm the nomination, and the last time around, in 1995, the White House nominee was opposed during that process by organizations of historians and archivists (who regarded Carlin as unqualified). This time, the White House reportedly hopes to avoid hearings and instead plans to attach a confirmation bill to some other piece of legislation, perhaps as early as May. This would leave a Republican appointee in charge of not only the 9/11 Commission archives but all other Bush White House documents.

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." There has been no such consultation.

Bush's move is part of a larger pattern of expanded White House secrecy, starting with its fight to conceal the names of members of the Cheney energy task force and continuing with the recent effort to prevent the 9/11 Commission from revealing such documents as the now-famous Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001. It's true that all Presidents want to control access to their papers, but it's the responsibility of the archivist to see that access is "free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory," as the Statement on Standards of the American Historical Association puts it.

Senate confirmation hearings are essential because Weinstein's record, especially on access issues, is bad. His 1999 book The Haunted Wood has been criticized for its flawed handling of archival materials. His publisher paid for exclusive access to Soviet archives, and no one else has been allowed to see the documents he quotes (see Ellen Schrecker, "The Spies Who Loved Us?" May 24, 1999). This appears to violate the code of ethics of the International Council on Archives, which calls for "the widest possible access" to documents. His earlier book, about Alger Hiss, has been criticized for politically motivated withholding of documents: Weinstein has refused to make his interviews on the Hiss case available to historians who disagree with him, which violates the Standards of the American Historical Association (see Victor Navasky, "Allen Weinstein's Docudrama," November 3, 1997).

A single senator can put a hold on a presidential nomination, which prevents it from going forward without debate. This should be done promptly. Then the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Susan Collins--with Joseph Lieberman as ranking Democrat--has an obligation to hold confirmation hearings. The American people need a better custodian of their history.

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