Classified Presidential Library Records to be Moved to DC

The National Archives said last week that it will gather tens of millions of pages of classified historical records from Presidential Libraries around the country and will bring them to Washington, DC for declassification review.

“We are making this change to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the safeguarding and the declassification of this material and in light of resource challenges,” said NARA chief operating officer William J. Bosanko. “Researchers are expected to benefit from efficiencies we can gain in the declassification process.”

“It is important to stress that this change in physical location of the records is temporary and that the records will be returned to the Presidential Libraries as they are declassified,” he wrote in a March 1 message.

Is it really necessary to physically move the records to DC in order to declassify them? Isn’t there at least a subset of classified records at presidential libraries that could be readily declassified on site?

“My personal opinion is yes (although the size of the subset changes greatly from Library to Library),” replied Mr. Bosanko by email today.  “However, this comes back to age-old issues around declassification authority and third-agency referrals.  With the policies that are in place, in a practical sense, the answer is no (and, the status quo has not realized the sort of declassification I think is at the heart of your question).  And, bringing them here makes it much easier to address long-standing challenges such as certain topics that cut across more than one Administration.”

There are approximately 75 million pages of classified records at presidential libraries that will be affected by the move, Mr. Bosanko said. Duplicate copies will not be kept at the libraries during the declassification review.

“We are just starting the planning process and many details must still be worked out,” he wrote.

National Archives Tackles Email Management

Overwhelmed by the challenge of trying to sort, identify and preserve historically valuable government email, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has devised what it calls the Capstone approach to email management.

Under Capstone, government email would be categorized for retention or disposal based on the title or position of the email sender, rather than the contents of the email message. Those officials responsible for agency policy and mission performance would have their emails systematically collected and saved; others would not. In theory, this approach should simplify the task of email management and improve the preservation of historically valuable email.

NARA has prepared a draft “General Record Schedule” (GRS) for agency email that embodies the Capstone approach. The draft GRS along with related explanatory material has recently been published for public comment.

One initial concern is that the General Record Schedule would replace the various individual schedules that agencies have been obliged to prepare up to now. This would make it harder for interested members of the public to monitor the email management practices of particular agencies.

So, for example, it was the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency filed its own email record schedule last year that made it possible to discover that the Agency intended to preserve the email of only 22 senior officials. The ensuing controversy elicited congressional displeasure and led the National Archives to suspend approval of the CIA proposal. If there had been no CIA record schedule available for public review, there would have been no opportunity to challenge the agency’s minimalist record preservation policy.

On closer examination, however, this may be less of a problem than it first appears to be. That’s because the Capstone General Record Schedule would positively require the capture of email from a much broader cross-section of officials than were included in the CIA proposal. If CIA or any other agency wished to narrow the list of required officials specified in the draft GRS (in item 010), it would still have to prepare its own separate record schedule.

Even so, the draft GRS grants individual agencies considerable discretion in how they would implement the Capstone approach. Among other things, agencies would notably be responsible for determining “the extent of inclusion of classified email,” a provision that might easily lend itself to abuse.

Inevitably, there will have to be trade-offs made in order to achieve a government email management regime that is practical and effective. But agencies that have a history of problematic records management practices — not only CIA — should arguably be required to demonstrate a degree of competence and good faith before they are granted unsupervised discretion in managing the disposition of official email. In such cases, a requirement for individual agency record schedules might still be appropriate.