The political strife swirling around Chuck Hagel's confirmation battle descended on Omaha this week, as UNO officials denied requests from at least five major media outlets to open Hagel's Senate archive.
Steve Shorb, the dean of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Criss Library, said that an archivist was still processing Hagel's voluminous trove of records from his 12 years in office and that it was not ready to be opened to the public, confirmation vote or not.
Hagel has been at the center of a bitter confirmation fight since being nominated for secretary of defense. Republicans have questioned Hagel's support for Israel and, last week, successfully delayed a vote on their fellow Republican by arguing that he needed to turn over more financial records and speeches. The next vote is set for Tuesday.
Over the past week, some have tried to make his U.S. Senate records, housed at UNO, an issue in the confirmation debate.
Hagel donated his collection in 2008. It includes 1,700 boxes of records and 1,000 audio and video recordings.
One vocal request for access came from the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine founded by Bill Kristol, the political pundit leading the charge against Hagel's confirmation. The magazine flew a reporter into Omaha who arrived on campus, unannounced, and spent a day arguing to see Hagel's entire collection. He later wrote a story of his Omaha adventure, saying he was “shunned from taking a look inside” the collection.
Shorb countered that even if the collection were ready to be opened, UNO would never grant a reporter's request to “rummage” through the boxes.
He also said it takes years, and sometimes decades, to process an archive in accordance with federal law, which prohibits certain sensitive material — such as records from Senate investigations and confirmation hearings — from being released for 20 to 50 years.
Karen Paul, the archivist with the U.S. Senate, agreed.
She said she would be surprised if an archive the size of Hagel's was ready to be opened. She also agreed that it's “pretty standard practice” for a library to deny access until the entire collection has been processed.
Paul noted that she believes few, if any, of the collections deposited by the senators who left office with Hagel in 2008 are open to the public. For example, the collections donated by former Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Ted Stevens of Alaska are still being processed and are closed to the public.
“It would be very unusual if that amount of work was done that quickly and it was found that everything could be open,” Paul said.
And, even if it were open, no one would be given unfettered access to the collection. Researchers and others would be required to come to the library and request specific information, Shorb said.
“You never just go in and rummage through boxes. That's not the way it works,” he said.
All of this would not be an issue had Hagel not willingly donated his material.
Federal law does not require congressmen and women to donate their office records to any university or library. In fact, they could legally throw all the material away. Or they could donate as much or as little as they wanted for preservation.
Hagel appears to have donated a massive amount in comparison with others, such as former Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, who dropped off about 83 boxes to the Denver Public Library.
Allard left office at the same time as Hagel, and his is one of the few collections from that departing class of senators that is open to researchers.
Other senators who left office with Hagel, such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, have kept possession of their records.
Some senators may not want the records released until they are dead or until most of the people mentioned in the collection are dead, Paul said.
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Records maintained by the Senate, including committee records, are not released for 20 to 50 years, depending on the information.
It is important to maintain people's privacy, including those constituents who wrote to their senators with health or business concerns, Paul said.
The questions about Hagel's archives rose to the forefront when Daniel Halper, the journalist with the Weekly Standard, arrived on the UNO campus Tuesday, arguing that the archives should be opened.
Halper later wrote — and began to tweet — that the only way he could gain access to the files was if Hagel agreed.
“Hagel Stonewalls. Refuses to Grant Access to Archive,” was one of Halper's posts on Twitter.
Shorb rejected Halper's contention that Hagel had any authority over the archives, saying Hagel turned over ownership of the collection to UNO in 2010.
Only UNO can grant or deny access to the archives, said Shorb.
“(Hagel) actually can't give permission to open the archives,” said Shorb. He said he has had no communication with Hagel or his staff since the archive requests began to filter in.
Halper did not return either a telephone call or an email request for an interview.
Shorb said he realizes that the archive has become a point of interest in Hagel's confirmation process but that the UNO library had no way to know that Hagel would be back in the news, or that he would be nominated for defense secretary when they began work on his collection.
And, he said, they're working as fast as they can, with a single archivist plowing through the material.
“It just takes time to do it correctly,” he said.
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