Senate Democrats on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees last week told the White House to preserve all records produced by the Bush administration and expressed “particular concerns” whether Vice President Dick Cheney's office will comply with the law.
“We believe it is vital the presidential and vice presidential documents belonging to the American people be preserved, including those related to key national security decisions in which the (office of the vice president) played an important role,” the senators wrote in the Nov. 7 letter to White House lawyer Fred Fielding.
The letter was sent by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. They asked Fielding to detail steps being taken to preserve White House documents and hand them over to the National Archives and Records Administration.
The senators asked whether the White House believes that any notes, document and records created in the White House by the president, vice president and their staffs may be destroyed without first consulting with the archivist of the United States, and if so which ones. It also asks whether Fielding has investigated a Washington Post report that some presidential orders are kept off White House records in a safe in office of the vice president's lawyer.
“We have particular concerns … regarding documents in the possession of the Office of the Vice President,” the letter said. Citing ongoing litigation over the preservation of Cheney's records, the senators wrote: “the declarations filed in that case by the Office of the Vice President raise serious concerns about its interpretations of the (Presidential Records Act).”
The 1978 Presidential Records Act requires all presidential and vice presidential records to be transferred to the Archives immediately upon the end of the president's last term of office and gives the archivist responsibility to preserve and control access to presidential records. The law ended the tradition of private ownership of presidential papers, opening White House records to the public and historians.
In 2003, Cheney began asserting that the vice president's office is not an entity within the executive branch.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto in an e-mail called the leak of the letter “a partisan attack by Senate Democrats.”
“We do not need to be reminded about the Presidential Records Act by Chairman Leahy,” he wrote.
A Senate official with knowledge of the letter said there is no indication the White House is destroying documents.
Cheney's office is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington which is trying to ensure that no presidential records are destroyed or handled in a way that makes them unavailable to the public.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said Cheney's position on the status of the vice president's office raises questions whether his records will be preserved in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.
In a deposition taken by CREW Monday, an Archives staff member who works on presidential materials said some of the vice president's records generated in his capacity as the president of the Senate may be exempt from the law if they are “purely political or partisan.”
Records of Cheney's dealings with the Republican National Committee would not require preservation under the act, Nancy Kegan Smith, the archives official, said during the deposition. Smith also said NARA has not made a final decision on records produced when Cheney acts as president of the Senate. Clare O'Donnell, Cheney's deputy chief of staff, was being deposed by CREW for the lawsuit Thursday.
The Bush White House has been the most secretive in years, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.