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Despite Controversy, Hagel’s Archives Sealed Shut
Only Chuck Hagel can grant access.
Despite Controversy, Hagel’s Archives Sealed Shut

Omaha, Nebraska
The largest known Chuck Hagel archive is located here, at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. But good luck accessing it: Despite intense national focus on the defense secretary nominee’s record, this reporter was shunned from taking a look inside the trove of Hagel’s videos, audio recordings, documents, pictures, and artifacts.

Hagel Chuck

James T. Shaw, director of collections and the government documents librarian here, insists Tuesday morning he is not “stonewalling” efforts to gain access to Hagel’s record. Preventing immediate access, he says, is imperative for the academic integrity of the institution. A trained archivist has not yet organized the entire record, Shaw explains.

The explanation is hardly convincing, so I ask to speak with a higher authority. Soon, Shaw’s boss, Stephen R. Shorb, joins us down in the basement level of the university’s Criss Library.

The collection was acquired by the university four years ago, in December 2008, upon Hagel’s retirement from the Senate. “The archives contain ~1700 boxes of documents, ~1000 audio and video recordings, ~1000 photographs and artifacts and hundreds of books from Sen. Hagel’s personal statement,” reads a statement I’m handed that’s attributed to Shorb, the library dean. “The archives are being organized so that they will be a resource for future researchers, and are not open to the public at this time.”

He says he hates estimating, but believes the archive will be available for access roughly two-and-a-half years from now.

I try again to make the case for access now. The confirmation of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense is currently being considering in the U.S. Senate. Votes have been taken, and more are scheduled for next week. What’s in those boxes could tip the scale—the contents could show that he would be an excellent defense secretary. Or the opposite. It is, therefore, a matter of national importance.

Shorb more or less seems to agree, and suggests that in reality the issue is beyond his control. Granting access to the trove would violate the terms under which Hagel donated the files, he claims.

The agreement, the dean insists, signed between the university and former senator precludes anyone from looking at the archives until they are complete. But, when pressed, the dean admits he has not seen the agreement since it was signed in 2008.

I ask to see the agreement. Shorb seems to consider it. But then it occurs to him that this, too, might violate the agreement. 

Regardless, he agrees to look back at the agreement, and I leave to track down the highest university administrator I can find. B.J. Reed, the senior vice chancellor of academic and student affairs, is friendly, like the other Nebraskans. He’s also completely unhelpful.

Reed defers to Shorb’s judgment, but with one notable concession: He agrees I should be able to see the document the university signed with Hagel when accepting the archive.

I return to the library to look for Shorb. I’m anxious to see this supposed agreement.

But he’s not in his office, and his secretary doesn’t seem keen on having me wait on the couch across from her desk. She insists I go to the café on the far side of the library.

Half an hour goes by. I’m waiting for Shorb’s assistant to call, when she walks right in the café with … the director of marketing for the university, Erin Fogarty Owen, a former Democratic spokesman. Owen’s flanked by Charley Reed, who’s the vice chancellor’s son and some sort of media affairs specialist. He will be, someone at the university decided, my minder for the next hour or so.

But when my minder leaves, and I still haven’t been notified whether the dean has returned, I worry that something’s up. I walk back to the dean’s office—still with hopes that I’ll be able to see whether the agreement requires Hagel’s permission to see the archive.

I’ve been played a fool: The dean has left for the day.

“I work for the people of Nebraska, not you,” Shorb says when I get him on his cell phone. Maybe he’ll help, but it isn’t likely. “It’s not my top priority,” he says.

Next week, the Senate is expected once again to vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense. The last time the Senate voted, Hagel’s nomination failed to move forward because enough senators wanted more time and information before deciding on the controversial nominee.

This time, the one person who’s preventing more information from coming out is Chuck Hagel. He’s the one—the only one, I’m told—who can call the bureaucrats at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and permit access to his archives.

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