More efficient archiving needed to re-establish open government

A Slate writer praises Obama’s efforts to resurrect the Freedom of Information Act, but the next step is to improve government record keeping so government workers can actually find the documents requested by reporters and others. -DB

Jan. 29, 2009, at 1:28 PM ET
By Fred Kaplan

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to revive the Freedom of Information Act was a good first step toward fulfilling his campaign pledge for a “new era of open government.”

Here’s an idea for a good second step: Force the federal agencies to file and maintain all the records they’re creating now, so that in the future when citizens file FOIA requests to declassify documents, they won’t receive a form letter that reads, “Sorry, no such documents exist.”

A 2005 report by the National Archives and Records Administration—which was declassified just this week under a FOIA suit filed by the National Security Archive, a private research organization at George Washington University—concluded that, in an era when nearly all records are stored on hard drives, rather than typed on paper, the raw bits of history are evaporating.

“Electronic records,” the study found, “are generally not disposed of in accordance” with federal regulations. In particular, many e-mails are “being destroyed prematurely,” for several reasons.

First, some officials write e-mail on their personal computers—perhaps for convenience, perhaps to evade the rules—and fail to turn in those files. Second, “because electronic records are less tangible than paper records,” the report notes, officials “often do not consider them to be records needing to be filed and retired properly.” Third, in many offices, the job of “records custodian” rotates frequently; it is often left vacant for a long time; and when the vacancy is filled, National Archives officials aren’t notified so that they can come to train the new gatekeeper. In short, expertise has greatly declined. Fourth, the number of records custodians has also declined “substantially over the past decade.”

Finally—and this is simply stunning—the National Archives’ technology branch is so antiquated that it cannot process some of the most common software programs. Specifically, the study states, the archives “is still unable to accept Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint slides.”

This is a huge lapse. Nearly all internal briefings in the Pentagon these days are presented as PowerPoint slides. Officials told me three years ago that if an officer wanted to make a case for a war plan or a weapons program or just about anything, he or she had better make the case in PowerPoint—or forget about getting it approved.

And now, it turns out, all those presentations may be lost to the ether.

It used to be worse. The report notes that the National Archives only “recently”—it doesn’t say how recently—revised its procedures so that it could accept e-mail with attachments, scanned text documents, PDFs, digital photos, and Web content. (And Obama’s aides were shocked when the White House wireless system shut down the other day.)

The National Archives is developing an “Electronic Records Archive,” so that it can finally deal with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. But, according to the study, that is being “planned for implementation in the next seven years.” (Italics added.) The study was written four years ago; so, assuming the program is still on track, it will be up and running three years from now, when Obama’s first term is almost over.

Meanwhile, the study urges all agencies to keep their electronic records in a safe place. Good luck on that one.

In June 2003, I wrote a Slate column, called “The End of History,” that expressed some of these worries. I quoted at some length an Air Force historian named Eduard Mark, who had launched a one-man crusade to draw attention to this disaster. He remembered an incident from the early ’90s, when he was researching the official Air Force history of the Panama invasion, which had taken place only a few years earlier. At the Air Force operations center, he found a small Mac computer on which officers had saved all the briefings. Someone was about to throw the computer out. Mark stopped him just in time and printed out the briefings. “Those printouts I made,” he told me, “are the only copies in existence.”

The authors of the 2005 National Archives report write in their introduction that my Slate column was what inspired them to look into the issue. Since I’d quoted an Air Force historian, they decided to focus on the Air Force as their case study. Over two months, they visited 15 branches of Air Force headquarters, asking questions and examining all records. These were the offices centrally involved in military planning, weapons acquisition, international arms sales, budgeting, public affairs—the gamut of substantive issues.

They, in effect, affirmed Mark’s charges and concluded that the situation had not improved in the two years since he’d talked to me. In fact, because the use of electronic records had spread ever wider in the interim (and is likely to spread still further), the problem has only intensified.

It’s worth noting that, by all accounts, the Air Force is better at keeping records than the other branches of the military. A former Navy historian tells me that the Navy is much more lackadaisical.
Back in the old days, before the mid-1980s, Cabinet officials and their assistants and deputy assistants would write memos and hand them to a secretary. The secretary would type them on sheets of paper, backed by two or three carbons, then file the carbons. Periodically, someone from the National Archives would stop by with a cart and haul them away for posterity.

And so, historians researching the roots of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, or many other wars going back much further in time, could go to the National Archives, search the index, and retrieve the relevant documents.

When tomorrow’s historians go to write the chronicle of decision-making that led George W. Bush to invade Iraq and Afghanistan—or Bill Clinton to go to war over Kosovo or George H.W. Bush to fight the Gulf War the way he did—they may find there’s not much history to plumb.

The National Security Archive (not to be confused with the National Archives or the National Security Agency) is one of the leading private research agencies when it comes to identifying, declassifying, analyzing, and disseminating once-classified documents. It is able to do this in part because it’s well-funded and staffed by experienced attorneys who get their way (sometimes) by suing the Pentagon, the CIA, or whichever agency controls the documents they want. In this case, one of their lawyers spotted a reference to the National Archives study, titled “Records Maintenance and Disposition in Headquarters Air Force Offices,” dated January 2005, in the footnotes of a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. They requested a copy of the report through FOIA; they received a (slightly redacted) copy just this month. Knowing of my interest in the subject, and seeing the reference to the 2003 Slate column in the study’s introduction, Bill Burr, one of the NSA’s chief researchers, sent me a copy. To read the entire study, click here to download the PDF.