Senate Democrats Warn Bush Admin Not To Destroy Records

Kim Zetter

Democrats on the U.S. Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees sent a letter to the White House last week asking for an accounting of steps the administration plans to take to preserve documents and submit them to the National Archives and Records Administration once President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney leave office.

According to the Associated Press, the letter was sent from Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D -- RI), Patrick Leahy (D -- VT), John D. Rockefeller (D -- WV) and Dianne Feinstein (D -- CA) to White House attorney Fred Fielding.

"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 letter said.

"We have particular concerns ... regarding documents in the possession of the Office of the Vice President," the senators added. Referring to ongoing litigation over the preservation of Vice President Cheney's records, they 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 presidential and vice presidential records to be transferred to the National Archives immediately upon the end of the president's term in office. But in the past, Cheney has maintained that his office isn't part of the executive branch and therefore is not subject to all of the same open records requirements that govern the presidential office. Therefore the senators expressed concern that such an interpretation might be used to destroy records before anyone can even catalogue their existence.

The Washington Post had previously reported that Cheney keeps presidential orders related to the domestic surveillance program locked in a safe in the office of his lawyer, David Addington.
The command center of "the president's program," as Addington usually called it, was not in the White House. Its controlling documents, which gave strategic direction to the nation's largest spy agency, lived in a vault across an alley from the West Wing -- in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on the east side of the second floor, where the vice president headquartered his staff.

The vault was in EEOB 268, Addington's office. Cheney's lawyer held the documents, physical and electronic, because he was the one who wrote them. New forms of domestic espionage were created and developed over time in presidential authorizations that Addington typed on a Tempest-shielded computer across from his desk.

It is unlikely that the history of U.S. intelligence includes another operation conceived and supervised by the office of the vice president. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had "no idea," he said, that the presidential orders were held in a vice presidential safe. An authoritative source said the staff secretariat, which kept a comprehensive inventory of presidential papers, classified and unclassified, possessed no record of these.

In an interview, Card said the Executive Office of the President, a formal term that encompassed Bush's staff but not Cheney's, followed strict procedures for handling and securing presidential papers.

"If there were exceptions to that, I'm not aware of them," he said. "If these documents weren't stored the right way or put in the right places or maintained by the right people, I'm not aware of it."

In an e-mail sent to the Associated Press, White House spokesman Tony Fratto took umbrage at the suggestion that anyone in the White House might destroy documents illegally.
"We do not need to be reminded about the Presidential Records Act by Chairman Leahy," he wrote.