If you are looking for information contained in presidential records, there are two main sources you can consult - the Federal Register for the public papers of the President and the Archivist of the United States for records available to the public through the Presidential Records Act.
The easiest way to get presidential records is through the Federal Register, which makes a collection of official presidential documents available to the public. Every six months the Federal Register publishes a compilation called the Public Papers of the President, which includes documents such as executive orders, proclamations, memoranda, messages to Congress, speeches and press conferences.
The Archivist of the United States makes presidential records available to the public through the Presidential Records Act. Although presidential records are not subject to public access requests during the President's term of office, the Presidential Records Act makes presidential records available to the public five years after the President leaves office. The Presidential Records Act established that presidents do not own their White House records as personal property but rather the U.S. Government has "ownership, possession and control" over the records. The Archivist of the United States has "an affirmative duty to make such records available to the public" through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) no later than five years after the President leaves office.
Who Can Request Records
- Any person can access the Federal Register online.
- Any person can file a FOIA request to gain can access to presidential records under the Presidential Records Act.
What Records Are Covered
- The Federal Register makes the Public Papers of the President available to the public, including proclamations, executive orders, messages to Congress, speeches, press conferences and other documents such as the President's schedule of meetings released by the Office of the Press Secretary.
- Under the Presidential Records Act, you can access documentary materials "created or received by the President, his immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise and assist the President." According to the definitions section of the Act, this includes books, correspondence, memoranda, documents, papers, pamphlets, works of art, models, pictures, photographs, plats, maps, films and motion pictures.
How to Request Records
- The Federal Register archives its records online, and has a helpful search guidance page at http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/research/guide.html.
- Though the Archivist of the United States will take FOIA requests for presidential records available to the public through the Presidential Records Act, it suggests on its website to submit requests to the appropriate Presidential Library. You can find a list of such libraries here. See the section on Filing a FOIA Request in this guide for more information on FOIA.
What Are Your Remedies if You are Denied
- If your request for records is denied in whole or in part, you may appeal the denial of access under the Presidential Records Act. The National Archives and Records Administration outlines an administrative appeal process in its NARA Code of Federal Regulations 36 CFR 1270.42. The basic procedure is:
- File a written appeal with the appropriate presidential library within 35 days of the denial
- Explain in the appeal the specific reasons you believe you should have access to the records
- The appropriate presidential library director then has 30 days to consider the appeal and to respond in writing with the basis for the determination.
- The director's decision to withhold records is final and is not subject to judicial review.
- You may also choose to file a lawsuit in federal court. See American Historical Association v. National Archives and Records Administration, 310 F.Supp.2d 216 (2004).
Restrictions On Your Ability to Access Presidential Records
- You can not request access to presidential records during the President's term of office. FOIA does not apply to offices within the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise and assist the President. Kissinger v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 445 U.S. 136, 156 (1980) (noting that the term “agency” does not include “the President's immediate personal staff or units in the Executive Office whose sole function is to advise and assist the President.”) However, after a President leaves office, the Presidential Records Act allows access to these records. So, for instance, right now, you cannot request access to President Bush's presidential records through FOIA. But, 5 years after President Bush leaves office, the Presidential Records Act would allow you to access those same records through FOIA.
- A former or incumbent president may restrict access to presidential records for up to twelve years if he claims an exemption based on section 2204 of the Presidential Records Act. These six exemptions are for national security information, information relating to appointees to Federal office, information specifically exempt from disclosure by statute, trade secrets and confidential business information, confidential conversations between the President and his advisers, and files which if disclosed would constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy." 44 U.S.C. s.s. 2204(a)(1)-(6). After twelve years, these exemptions no longer apply. The regular exemptions under FOIA may apply, however, so you should review the section on FOIA Exemptions before concluding that you are automatically entitled to the information you seek.
- In November of 2001, President Bush issued Executive Order 13233 - Further Implications of the Presidential Records Act which gives current and former presidents and vice presidents authority to request that the release of their presidential records be withheld or delayed.