The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is embarking on an ambitious effort to phase out the acquisition of paper records by 2022 and to transition to all-electronic record keeping. The White House Office of Management and Budget has endorsed the initiative and has directed all federal agencies to adopt exclusively electronic formats for managing permanent records.
But the move is generating anxiety about the feasibility of the transition and about possible unintended negative consequences for public access to government records.
“The most significant part of [the new policy is the provision for NARA] to stop accepting paper records by December 31, 2022,” wrote David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, in a June 28 notice to NARA employees.
Accordingly, the Acting Director of OMB directed all agency heads to plan to operate all but exclusively in an all-electronic environment.
“By December 31, 2022, all permanent records in Federal agencies will be managed electronically to the fullest extent possible for eventual transfer and accessioning by NARA in an electronic format,” the June 28 OMB memo stated.
After 2022, agencies will be obliged to convert any remaining permanent analog records in their possession to digital formats for transfer to NARA.
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The new policy shows some signs of carelessness in its formulation. The paragraphs in the OMB memorandum are incorrectly numbered. The text includes reference to a “section 2.2” which does not exist. Meanwhile, several more substantial concerns have been raised by dissenting observers and employees.
“There are significant and crucial [paper] records that have not been, and will not be, transferred into the system by 2022,” said one records specialist who is critical of the new policy. These include some original Department of State SCI-level records dating back to the 1940s, as well as many classified original records from CIA, NRO, NSA, DoD/OSD, and FBI that have been withheld from the National Archives.
A NARA official countered that those records could and should be transferred to NARA by the 2022 deadline. But if they are not transferred, then agencies could seek an exception for those records, or else they would be obliged to digitize them.
Isn’t that an unfunded mandate that is likely to result in inferior digitized copies of valuable originals?
Not if agencies change their practices, NARA says. Agencies currently are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to store and service paper records. If the new policy is successfully implemented, those resources could be repurposed for digitization of remaining records and investment in electronic records management that meets archival standards. By all accounts new resources will be required to enable NARA to accommodate vast new collections of electronic records and to process them for public access.
Still, said a critic of the new policy, “It reflects a fundamental change in NARA’s mission from the identification and protection of the permanently valuable records to the protection of images of records; from protection of originals to protection of facsimiles.”
There are two deeply divided schools of thought on that point, NARA acknowledges. One view holds that a properly digitized copy is perfectly acceptable, while an opposing view considers that digitized copies are only valid for improving access while the original [paper] record is “the record.” The point becomes largely moot as new paper originals recede into the past in favor of electronic originals.
In any case, the imposition of a 2022 deadline for conversion to an all-electronic environment is “forcing a lot of useful conversations,” according to a NARA official who admits that some anxiety may not be out of place.
“This is going to be a colossal disaster for the records and those who depend on them,” an internal critic said.
No, it’s going to be a “soft disruption,” the NARA official said. Implementation of the policy will be flexible, the official said. “Nothing will be lost.”
“We’re in the process of shifting the entire government off of paper and to all electronic record-keeping,” Archivist Ferriero told the Washington City Paper last week. “We are playing a major role in helping the agencies get to that point.”
The National Declassification Center at the National Archives is looking for a director to help implement its declassification agenda.
The National Declassification Center was established by President Obama’s 2009 executive order 13526 “to streamline declassification processes,” and it has had some success in bringing order to an often arbitrary declassification environment. One of the Center’s recent “special projects” involves review of records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense with 1.3 million pages processed and 830 thousand pages declassified.
In a significant expansion of intelligence record preservation, email from more than 426 Central Intelligence Agency email accounts will now be captured as permanent historical records. A plan to that effect was approved by the National Archives last week.
In 2014, the CIA had said that it intended to preserve the emails of only 22 senior officials, a startlingly low number considering the size and importance of the Agency. The National Archives initially recommended approval of the CIA proposal.
“In our experience, email messages are essential to finding CIA records that may not exist in other so-called permanent records at the CIA,” wrote Senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss in November 2014, when they were chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Applying the new proposal to all but the 22 most senior CIA officials means the new policy would allow the destruction of important records and messages of a number of top CIA officials.”
In light of such objections, NARA agreed to reassess the CIA plan. It was officially withdrawn by CIA in 2016.
The new plan, submitted by CIA in July 2017 and approved by NARA on April 24, extends email record preservation much deeper into the CIA bureaucracy, requiring retention of the email of many program managers and office directors that were missing from the original plan.
The newly approved plan identifies 426 accounts subject to capture as permanent records. However, a number of other email accounts covered by the new plan are classified “due to the names of some offices noted on the form as well as the number of accounts in certain categories,” said Meg Phillips, external affairs liaison for NARA. The total number is therefore greater than 426.
The CIA’s new plan “resolves the majority of comments or concerns raised during the public comment period” regarding the previous plan, Ms. Phillips said.
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.
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.