Presidential Libraries

Opening the Reagan Records

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States
August 2001

The White House records of the Office of the President of the United States represent some of the highest-level records that we receive, preserve, and make available to the public at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Currently, we are opening the records of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-89), and I want to explain some of the laws, regulations, and procedures involved in this effort.

Many of the issues and situations these records describe are still ongoing, and thus there is keen interest in them on the part of historians, journalists, lawyers, members of Congress, students, and others--all of them seeking to discover the inner workings of the Executive Office of the President in the not-too-distant past.

The records of former President Reagan are the first Presidential records to be governed by the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978. The PRA, enacted in the aftermath of the post-Watergate controversy over the ownership of the Presidential records of Richard M. Nixon, establishes the general process for opening the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents that were created on or after 20 January 1981.

The 1978 law specified that all official Presidential and Vice Presidential records created after that date are the property of the Federal Government. And it stated that after the President's term, the records would be transferred to the custody of the Archivist of the United States and would begin to be made public five years after that President left office.

Presidents who served before 1981, except for President Nixon, were free to limit access to any and all of their White House papers, because their papers were considered their personal property. However, all of them since Herbert Hoover, except Nixon, have donated those papers to the Federal Government with very few restrictions, except for records dealing with national security, personal materials, and materials that would be embarrassing to other individuals or otherwise invade personal privacy. These records are preserved and made accessible in Presidential libraries run by NARA. President Nixon's records are in the National Archives at College Park.

The PRA also establishes a process for access to the records of Presidents from Ronald Reagan onwards. It allows public access to the records beginning five years after the President leaves office, but permits the former President and the Vice President to invoke up to six specific restrictions to public access for up to twelve years.

For the first five years after the President leaves office, his records are generally exempt from public access of any kind, including the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). During this period, only Congress, the courts, and the incumbent and former Presidents may have access.

For the next seven years, anyone can request access to Presidential records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but various exemptions under the PRA and FOIA still apply. The PRA exemptions include national security information that is properly classified; information about appointees to Federal office; information specifically exempt from disclosure by law; trade secrets and confidential business information; confidential communications requesting or submitting advice between the President and his advisors or between such advisors; and information which, if disclosed, would cause a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. These exemptions are imposed by the Archivist, following a thirty-day review by both the former and current Presidents.

After twelve years, the PRA exemptions no longer apply. Only the FOIA exemptions apply at that point, except one: there is no longer an automatic statutory exemption to withhold communications between the President and his advisors and among the advisors themselves or any other deliberative records. However, even after twelve years, both the former and current Presidents still review Presidential records prior to release to consider whether to assert the privilege that covers communications between the President and his advisors and among the advisors themselves, or any other deliberative records. Executive Order 12667, issued by President Reagan in January 1989, establishes the procedures for notifying the former and incumbent Presidents and for asserting that privilege against the release of Presidential records.

So far, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, has released approximately 4.5 million pages out of the roughly 43.8 million pages at the library. Those 4.5 million pages were released during the past twelve years, mostly in response to FOIA requests from researchers. 113,200 pages have been withheld under the exemptions allowed by FOIA or the PRA.

Earlier this year, NARA provided thirty-day notifications to the White House and to the Office of President Reagan for some 68,000 pages of Reagan records that had been withheld during the first twelve years after the Reagan Presidency because they concerned confidential advice. However, because this was the first time that Presidential records containing confidential advice could no longer be restricted under the PRA, the White House extended the thirty-day time period so that it could conduct a thorough legal review of the PRA and consider its long-term implications on the deliberative process for the Presidency and the Executive Branch. President Bush's White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales, first extended the time period until 21 June, and then further extended it until 31 August.

While the Administration is reviewing this issue, other Presidential records from the Reagan Library, which do not concern confidential advice, have continued to be opened. So far this year, more than 36,000 pages have been released following notice to the White House and the Office of President Reagan. We anticipate additional openings in the near future, and are continuing to process the millions of records remaining to be opened at the Reagan Library, the Bush Library, and the future Clinton Library.