The Battle Over The Clinton Papers

(AP Photo)
At last week's Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton for not releasing records from her time as first lady.

"We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history," he said. "And not releasing, I think, these records — at the same time, Hillary, that you're making the claim that this is the basis for your experience — I think, is a problem."

If you are confused as to the context behind Obama's charge, you're not alone: Access to presidential papers is a complex issue, and one that has not been entirely resolved. But it's not impenetrable.

Here are the basics: Almost 30 years ago, The Presidential Records Act of 1978 decreed that White House records, beginning with those of Ronald Reagan, belong to the public. That meant that everything from emails to memos to minutes from private meetings – anything that might be considered government business – could be released into the public domain, according to CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller.

That's easier said than done, of course. Presidents have the option of delaying the release of documents for 12 years, and 2001 executive order by President Bush gives them the option of delaying the release of many records indefinitely.

To gain access to the available documents, one can file a Freedom Of Information Act request – commonly known as a FOIA. But if you decide to do so, don't expect a prompt response. The National Archives and presidential libraries review all documents before they are made public, and according to the Associated Press, the National Archives at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock has 78 million pages of Clinton documents and 20 million e-mail messages for its six staffers to sift through.

At last count, there are 287 pending FOIA requests for Clinton documents. Emily Robison, the acting director of the Clinton Library, wrote in a recent court filing that that means processing more than 10 million pages of presidential records.

And that's not all: Once they locate the records, National Archives staffers have to screen out classified and personal information before releasing them. And all records must be cleared by Bill Clinton advisor Bruce Lindsey and the office of the White House counsel before they are made public.

On Friday, The Politico reported that the Clinton library was preparing 10,000 pages of Hillary Clinton's "daily schedules" to be released in late January, though that release could be slowed down by the review process. Clinton has chalked up delays in releasing the documents to the difficulty of processing them as opposed to any efforts on the Clintons' part to suppress them.

"The Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves," she said at the debate. "There's about 20 million pieces of paper there and they are moving, and they are releasing as they do their process. And I am fully in favor of that." Some documents related to Hillary Clinton have yet to even be processed by the Archives.

Last month, a court struck down part of Bush's 2001 executive order, and there is now a bill pending in Congress to overturn it, though the bill has been put on hold in the Senate and the White House has threatened to veto.

The upshot? As Newsweek reported this week after interviewing Archive officials, "the vast majority of the Clintons' health-care task-force records are still under lock and key in Little Rock—and might stay that way for some time." (Clinton has claimed that "all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with health care, those are already available.") The number of unreleased health care documents, the magazine reports, is more than 3 million.

The appeal of these documents is obvious: They could provide a window into the thinking and management style of a presidential candidate during her time in the White House. Conservative groups like Judicial Watch, which has filed FOIA requests for the records, likely hope to find materials among the records that can be used against the former first lady.

Reporters, meanwhile, see them as a potential treasure trove of information. The presidential library of former President Lyndon Johnson included the president's daily diary and recordings of his phone calls with aides, officials, congressional leaders and members of the press.