The Work

September 9, 2008 11:21 AM

Advocacy Group Files Suit to Ensure VP's Records Stay Public

Posted by Rachel Breitman

A government watchdog group has filed suit against Vice President Dick Cheney to preserve public access to his White House records once he leaves office in January.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed an injunction Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking a federal judge to order that Cheney's records be preserved under the confines of the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

The group was joined in the suit by historians Stanley Kutler and Martin Sherwin and three historical and archival organizations. Defendants include the vice president, the executive offices of the president and vice president, the National Archives, and chief archivist Allen Weinstein.

"We have brought this lawsuit to insure that all of the records are maintained for the American public," says Anne Weismann, CREW's chief counsel. "No other vice president in history has been as active in extending his power, but we expect Cheney will likely designate his records as nonexecutive records."

The White House released a statement saying that Cheney plans to follow the law in terms of what happens to his official papers once he leaves office.

"The Office of the Vice President currently follows the Presidential Records Act," assistant press secretary Jamie Hennigan said in a statement, "which includes turning over vice presidential records to the National Archives at the end of the term."

That statement notwithstanding, one cause for Weismann's concern about the future of the vice president's papers is an argument previously raised by Cheney and David Addington, his chief of staff and former counsel: Because Cheney serves as president of the Senate, his office is not part of the executive branch. By extension, Weismann worries, the vice president could argue that he is exempt from the Presidential Records Act, as well as most Freedom of Information Act requests.

Also of concern, she says, are limits placed on the Presidential Records Act by a November 2001 executive order, which said that only the "the executive records of the Vice President" would be included. In its suit, CREW said this narrow wording gives room for the vice president to identify his records as personal.

"There is the possibility of a history heist here, a theft from the American people," says Sherwin, an emeritus history professor at Tufts University and a 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for a biography of Robert Oppenheimer.

The Presidential Records Act was passed to preserve presidential papers in the wake of the Watergate scandal. CREW says that the 30-year-old act can now be used to protect Cheney's files regarding national security, intelligence, energy and environmental policy, and domestic wiretapping.

CREW was previously involved in a September 2007 lawsuit in conjunction with a suit brought by the National Security Archive to recover and preserve more than 5 million missing White House e-mails deleted between March 2003 and October 2005. In July 2008 a judge ordered the Executive Office of the President to search and preserve e-mails from individual workstations and portable media but excluded forensic copying of the workstations.

Gary Stern, general counsel for the Archives, did not return requests for comment.

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