Compliance for Thee But Not for Me; NARA Refuses to Take its Own Advice

Compliance for Thee But Not for Me; NARA Refuses to Take its Own Advice

  • February 8, 2023
Archives asks others for records but can’t seem to come up with their own

Today, ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) announced a transparency lawsuit against the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for wrongfully withholding records subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). PPT’s litigation comes just days after NARA requested that former presidents and vice presidents review personal records for classified materials, something the agency’s FOIA department has been unable to do themselves.

Last August PPT submitted two FOIA requests seeking calendar records for acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall and her communications with White House officials. These documents could shed light on conversations between NARA and the White House during a highly politically fraught period leading up to the unprecedented raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence to obtain presidential records and the discovery of classified material at several locations associated with President Joe Biden. After months of silence from NARA, PPT was forced to file suit to obtain these records.

While NARA has been unwilling to release records concerning Ms. Wall, it has no problem demanding others search and turn over their own records. The Archives sent letters recently to representatives of the last six administrations requesting they check their files to ensure no Presidential or Vice Presidential records exist within their personal materials. NARA cited the Presidential Records Act’s requirements that covered documents, which include non-classified Presidential or Vice Presidential records, be handed over to NARA and that this obligation “does not diminish after the end of an administration.”

The NARA letter was prompted by a slew of classified documents uncovered recently – at the home of former President Trump, several residences and offices of current President Biden, as well as at the home of former Vice President Mike Pence. A thirteen-hour search conducted at President Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware revealed documents dating back to the President’s 1973 senatorial days. The January FBI search is the fourth round of searches that uncovered classified documents within President Biden’s personal files.

“Apparently it’s too much to ask that the agency requesting everyone else turn over their records live by its own rules when its documents are sought,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust said. “At a time when the public could use some clarity and transparency on highly charged episodes, this appears to be par for the course for an administration proclaiming itself the most transparent in history. Yet one more reason why the American public’s trust in its government continues to plummet.”