There’s no sainthood for Obama, National Archives in Trump FBI raid uproar
Accusations are flying fast and furious regarding last week’s FBI raid at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. In my Wednesday piece for The Post, I noted that 30 million pages of Obama administration records had been trucked to Chicago. The Obama Foundation, working with the National Archives, promised to digitize and put them online. Almost six years after the records arrived at a Chicago-area warehouse, that hasn’t happened.
Trump revved up the controversy Friday when he asserted that Barack Obama “kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified. How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!”
Trump has not revealed any source for his allegations that many of the papers were classified and that they had “lots” of “nuclear” material. The Obama Foundation and the National Archives have denied there are any classified documents in those records.
The media have largely sainted the National Archives in this ruckus. The agency issued a statement Friday: “As required by the [Presidential Records Act], former President Obama has no control over where and how [the archives] stores the Presidential records of his Administration.”
But the National Archives blocks access to official records at the behest of every former president and his designated officials.
Almost all the media coverage of this controversy has ignored or downplayed the dismal failure of the Presidential Records Act to reveal presidents’ records. A Washington Post analysis of the dispute on the 30 million pages conceded, “As with many issues of government transparency and document-sharing, it’s true that this is not great! You often have to wait years for requested documents, and this appears to be no exception.”
But journalists should be outraged by this perpetual stonewalling. Barack and Michelle Obama collected a $65 million advance for their memoirs, but Americans are still effectively prohibited from seeing his official records.
The Presidential Records Act requires people seeking information to file a Freedom of Information Act request. As Politico reported in March, “At many presidential libraries, the queues for processing FOIAs stretch for years,” and requests “involving classified information can take more than a decade.”
Obama boasted he had “the most transparent administration in history.” In reality, the Obama administration was as devious as the Nixon administration when it came to government secrecy.
In 2011, Obama’s Justice Department formally proposed to permit federal agencies to falsely claim that FOIA-requested documents did not exist. The American Civil Liberties Union complained that the plan perverted “a law designed to provide public access to government information to be twisted to permit federal law enforcement agencies to actively lie to the American people.”
Obama’s lawyers claimed a new veto power that turned FOIA into a travesty. White House Counsel Gregory Craig quietly notified all federal agencies in 2009 that “all documents and records that implicate the White House in any way are said to have ‘White House equities’ and must receive an extra layer of review, not by agency FOIA experts, but by the White House itself,” a congressional report noted. Politico observed in 2016 that in some cases, White House FOIA “referrals have led to years of delay.”
The Obama Foundation and the National Archives talk about digitizing those 30 million pages as if it were an almost unfathomable labor of Hercules. It took me less than five minutes searching online to find a Kodak scanner that can handle 150,000 pages a day. Buy 10 of those scanners, and the 30 million pages could easily be digitized within a month. The scanners cost $20,000 each, but the Obama Foundation has $560 million in assets and the top three employees receive more than $500,000 a year. It could easily find the money for the scanners if disclosure were the goal.
The Obama Foundation estimates that 95% of Obama administration records were “born digital.” They could be easily placed online — if disclosure were the goal. Will the National Archives insist on “reviewing” each page for spelling errors before it goes live on the Internet or what?
Obama’s machinations don’t make Trump trustworthy. The Justice Department has not yet revealed precisely what documents it seized at Mar-a-Lago and what legal charges may be filed. There are plenty of questions about the motivation of the FBI raid, the possible role of an FBI confidential informant and the alleged seizure of materials protected by attorney-client privilege
At this point, National Archives bureaucrats seem to have adapted the early motto of National Review, standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.” But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wisely warned in 2012, “Lack of transparency eats away like a cancer at the trust people should have in their government.”
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.