Secrets of the Clinton Library
By: Josh Gerstein
August 25, 2014 05:01 AM EDT
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It is a lingering mystery of Bill Clinton’s White House: the genesis of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that gay groups came to revile.
But soon, this and other secrets that remain hidden away here at the Clinton Presidential Library may be unlocked. What did the Justice Department say about all the random requests for pardons? What kind of advice came from Clinton staffers such as now-Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan? What strategic thoughts were offered to the president and first lady Hillary Clinton on terrorism, Whitewater and health care reform? And what’s the library been holding back about Vince Foster?
Six months after the National Archives began releasing long-withheld Clinton White House documents, thousands of pages of the most sensitive records are still not yet public. But hints of their contents emerged during a POLITICO recent review of the gaps in the library’s public files.
To see document-by-document descriptions of what remains unreleased, one has to venture in person to the gleaming silver library alongside the Arkansas River. Most visitors go for the presidential limousine and the cart selling “I miss Bill” memorabilia before heading upstairs, taking in the Oval Office replica and the saxophone that candidate Clinton played on “The Arsenio Hall Show.”
But ask at the reception desk and a National Archives staffer will be summoned to escort you through a secure hallway to a wing of the library complex that houses 78 million pages of White House records and about 20 million emails — most of them stored on a couple of underground floors of the complex. Less than 5 percent of the records have been processed for release.
Internal National Archives files obtained by POLITICO show that the threat of publicity seems to have been a factor in getting some of that material out this year, nudging forward a painfully slow process involving the Archives, President Barack Obama’s lawyers and Clinton’s team — all of whom play roles in dictating the pace and sequence of releases.
Three days after POLITICO inquired with the White House in February about why none of the so-called previously withheld records had been released more than a year after the legal authority to withhold them expired, White House lawyer David Sandler emailed the Archives, approving the release of tens of thousands of pages of documents. The very next day, Clinton representative Bruce Lindsey signed off on disclosing the same batch of records — a trove so large that it has taken the library months to organize and post online.
So while the Obama White House decides on clearing the release of all of the roughly 33,000 records, here’s our rundown of the most intriguing still-unreleased files from the Clinton Library:
1) Gays in the military
For gay rights advocates, the Clinton years were complicated. Far and away, up to that time, he was the president who was friendliest to the gay and lesbian community. But he also put in place policies that took nearly two decades to reverse, such as the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Set for release soon from the Clinton archives are detailed notes of a key meeting where DADT was born. National Archives records obtained by POLITICO show plans to release: “Thirty-four pages of handwritten notes taken at a Jan. 25, 1993, meeting to discuss the issue of gays in the military between President Clinton, Vice President Gore and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Clinton, Al Gore and their top advisers are said to have discussed “their personal viewpoints of homosexuality” (choice vs. genetics).
The politics of gay rights have changed so abruptly in recent years that some of the views expressed privately on the subject could sound outdated or even offensive to many Americans. The papers could support or undercut Clinton’s claims that he was assured the new policy the military was considering would result in gay soldiers not being investigated unless they explicitly disclosed their sexuality.
2) The pardon feeding frenzy
The last-minute pardon of billionaire financier Marc Rich became one of the most infamous moments of Clinton’s presidency, sullying the president’s reputation as he walked out the door. Less well-known or remembered is the feeding frenzy of clemency applications that flowed into the White House in the weeks before Clinton left office. The list of individuals relaying pardon requests is a who’s who of prominent Democratic Party figures.
Rosalynn Carter requested a pardon for Patty Hearst, citing her “exemplary life for more than 20 years now.”
Former DNC Chair Donald Fowler urged a pardon for ABSCAM “victim” ex-Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.). Clinton friend Vernon Jordan sent in a pardon request for a New York fertility doctor serving time for health care fraud. (The physician happened to be Marc Rich’s ex-wife’s boyfriend.)
Michael Brown, son of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, unsuccessfully sought a pardon for boxing champion Riddick Bowe. (The junior Brown now needs one for himself. The former D.C. Council member is now serving a 39-month sentence after pleading guilty in a federal corruption sting.)
Many of the requests are already public. What’s set to emerge in the coming weeks are the recommendations Clinton got from the Justice Department and his own staffers, including the pros and cons of the most sensitive pardons.
(Also on POLITICO: Clinton library plans 10th anniversary)
Some of the soon-to-be-released papers appear to relate to cases tied to Hillary Clinton, like the commutations her husband granted to four Hasidic Jewish leaders from New Square, N.Y., a few months after they held a meeting with her as part of her Senate bid. A federal prosecutor investigated that clemency case and others but never filed charges.
3) Vince Foster
The Clinton Library has never released its key files on the death of Vince Foster, a White House attorney and former law partner of Hillary Clinton. Foster killed himself in July 1993 as he was handling various controversies that enmeshed the Clintons in their early months at the White House. The event was emotionally scarring for many in the Clintons’ circle and fueled numerous conspiracy theories.
Now, many Foster-related files are set to be disclosed, including a note from White House counselor David Gergen with Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann about turning over Foster’s suicide note to the U.S. Park Police. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation found it took the White House 30 hours to advise the police about the note, which staffers said was overlooked in initial searches of Foster’s office.
At the time of Foster’s death, he was deeply involved in responding to a lawsuit filed against Clinton’s Health Care Task Force. One previously secret document is listed this way in Clinton Library files: “Photcopy [sic] Note from Vincent Foster to Hillary Rodham Clinton [Re: Health Care Task Force lawsuit] (1 page).”
Of the half-dozen other handwritten notes Foster saved, several are set for release, but — fueling unending conspiracy theories — several of his other writings are still slated to be withheld on privacy grounds.
National Archives and Records Administration records obtained by POLITICO also indicate the forthcoming files include “White House personnel opinions on what to do about disclosure” relating to the Foster saga as well as legal memos about strategies to fight Freedom of Information Act requests seeking White House records about Foster’s death.
4) Crackdown on militias?
The 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City led to a smattering of legislative proposals, including efforts to streamline application of the death penalty and criminalize support for foreign terrorist groups. However, the Clinton White House also pressed into two areas that are highly controversial today and sure to raise the hackles of tea party types and the National Rifle Association: enhancing government surveillance powers and regulating armed groups of U.S. citizens.
Records set for release show the Clinton administration gave serious consideration to seeking a law that would crack down on “paramilitary” organizations by setting up a “strict licensing system” for the provision of military-style training, according to library records obtained by POLITICO.
After lawyers raised concerns that some of the proposals could violate the Constitution, Clinton political adviser Dick Morris was among those who counseled Clinton on how he could press forward against the “militias,” a summary of the files says.
Ultimately, Clinton didn’t seek a militia control law but did propose greater legal authority to obtain phone records (call it metadata if you must) as well as hotel, airline and bus details. Most of what he proposed became law within a couple of years and was broadened further under the PATRIOT Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
5) The presidency may change, but the players stay the same
The Clinton files — including the documents still to be released — are replete with appearances by individuals who are now at the highest levels of the Obama administration. The Sylvia Mathews who was involved in searching Vince Foster’s office following his death? That’s the current secretary of Health and Human Services: Sylvia Mathews Burwell. The Elena Kagan who wrote memos about Paula Jones’ lawsuit against President Clinton? She’s now a Supreme Court justice.
The Jennifer O’Connor who dealt with many of the complaints about the structure and legality of Hillary Clinton’s health care task force? The same Jennifer O’Connor who served as a scandal-managing lawyer for the Obama administration, first at the IRS, the HHS and now at the White House.
The National Security Council lawyer Caroline Krass, who opined on the constitutionality of collecting embassy employee DNA? She’s now the general counsel of the CIA.
Many of the Clinton-Obama transplants now have private advice they gave or received set to become public in short order.
6) White House Travel Office affair
One of the earliest “scandals” to plague the Clinton White House, the decision to abruptly terminate the entire staff of the office that organizes travel for the White House press corps and others accompanying the president on official trips became the subject of intense scrutiny. In a draft memo released in 1996, a top White House aide said there would be “hell to pay” if then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s wishes to clean house at the office were ignored. She had suggested that a firm close to the Clinton campaign take over the office.
Earlier, public statements by the White House downplayed Hillary’s role, but the White House’s full records on the controversy — including legal advice on how to respond to questions about the first lady’s actions — have never been made public. About 2,000 pages of records were withheld from an investigating congressional committee on executive privilege grounds. Now, many of those records are set for release.
Notably absent from the recent Clinton Library releases: any of the more than 56,000 pages the White House maintained on the Clintons’ Whitewater land deal and the years of investigations it gave rise to.
The Archives will soon break the seal on what it describes as “legal advice from Janet Reno on executive privilege,” along with “many letters and papers to and from counsel pertaining to fact-gathering, what is going on with the investigation, responding to requests and strategy as well as key points on Whitewater for press conferences.”
Despite the plan to make some sensitive Whitewater documents public, other letters and memos related to Whitewater could remain under wraps for some time. Archivists classified those files, including memos prepared by Clinton lawyer David Kendall and letters from late Whitewater figure Jim McDougal, withheld on privacy grounds as opposed to the confidential advice provisions that have expired.
8) Betsey Wright (keeper of the Clinton self-oppo file)
Of all the figures in Bill Clinton’s circle from his Arkansas days, none provokes as much curiosity and suspicion as Betsey Wright, the Clinton adviser known for developing the file of opposition research that outsiders might turn up on Clinton— particularly the many rumors of affairs.
At least one Wright email is set to emerge soon: Sent to a White House political aide in 1996, the email appears to relate to Whitewater and was gathered by Kagan in response to a subpoena from Independent Counsel Ken Starr.
9) How long will a SCOTUS nominee live?
With President Barack Obama talking about forthcoming vacancies on the Supreme Court, speculation is fueled about the health of the court’s current justices. But there is less public discussion of how health issues affect the consideration of potential Supreme Court nominees. In 1994, Clinton seriously considered naming federal appeals court judge Richard Arnold to the Supreme Court but opted against it because he’d been treated for lymphoma. The White House’s blunt internal deliberations on the issue, which have never been made public, are set for release. The records include “several different doctors discussing Arnold’s health and predicting how long they expect Arnold to live,” according to an Archives summary obtained by POLITICO.
Hillary Clinton reportedly pushed hard in favor of Arnold, but her husband eventually tapped Stephen Breyer for the slot. The soon-to-be-released files contain such sensitive information about Arnold’s health and reputation that they would not ordinarily be made public, even though the statutory legal protections for White House deliberations have expired. Those details are being made public because Arnold died in 2004 from complications of the lymphoma he’d struggled with for decades, lessening the weight given to privacy concerns.
10) Health care reform constitutionality
Long before Obamacare, there was Clintoncare — sometimes known as Hillarycare. It never became law, but lawyers still had to prepare to defend it. That task fell to Walter Dellinger and other top lawyers at DOJ who drafted memos like “The Constitutionality of Health Care Reform.”
Dellinger said earlier this month that his work focused on whether “a proposed national health board constituted an impermissible delegation of legislative authority, as well as questions about claims regarding taking of private property and “whether Congress had authority to enact the entire bill under the commerce clause.”
While Obamacare’s individual mandate has survived its Supreme Court challenge, opponents of the law will be looking to see what chinks the Clinton legal team saw in the legal foundation of health care reform and whether any of those arguments could be brought to bear against the Affordable Care Act.
11) Collecting federal employee DNA
In the wake of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a State Department review panel recommended that the U.S. government collect DNA samples from all U.S. Embassy personnel overseas. An email and handwritten notes show the Clinton White House struggled with the privacy and legal implications of building a database containing the DNA profiles of U.S. government workers. The plan ultimately was dropped.