State Dept. Employees Only Retained .01 Percent Of Emails As FOIA-Able 'Official Records'

from the lol-'accountability' dept

With uncanny timeliness, the State Department's Office of the Inspector General has released a report on the State Department's email retention -- or lack thereof. Not covered in the report is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email retention -- or lack thereof. High-ranking State Department officials use a different email system (when not using personal accounts) that isn't covered in this report.

Unfortunately, the lower-level officials and rank-and-file are abysmal at retaining emails subject to open records requests. In fact, they're so far under abysmal as to not even register on the Excellent-to-How-do-these-people-still-have-jobs? scale.

First, we have this:
A 2009 upgrade in the Department of State’s system facilitated the preservation of emails as official records.
Then we have this:
In 2011, employees created 61,156 record emails out of more than a billion emails sent.
Then… we have this:
Employees created 41,749 record emails in 2013.
Assuming around a billion emails for both the years quoted, State Department employees have managed to retain only .01% of emails created as FOIA-able "official records." Some of this is due to the lack of training or guidance on their responsibilities as public officials. But most of it is likely due to this, which is also related to the ongoing lack of training or guidance.
Some employees do not create record emails because they do not want to make the email available in searches or fear that this availability would inhibit debate about pending decisions.
"Inhibit debate." What a bunch of cowards. So scared of the American public that they shirk their responsibilities to the people who put roofs over their heads, gas in their cars and pension checks in their mailboxes. It's no surprise they haven't received the necessary training and guidance. Everyone from the Secretary of State on down suffers from the same fear of accountability. If they're not retaining records at the top level, those middle-managing aren't going to feel too compelled to make sure every employee takes care to retain emails as official records. "Lead by example," as the saying goes, and the example is… Hillary Clinton, etc.

The OIG discovered that, while every State Dept. office was pretty terrible about following retention rules, some were much worse than others.
The OIG team’s review of the Department’s records on record email use by missions and bureaus shows great variations (see Appendices C and D). For example, Embassy Singapore created 1,047 record emails in 2013; Embassy Islamabad created 121; and Embassy Beijing, only 47. Consulate General Lagos created 4,922 record emails, the most of any post in 2013.

The Department’s bureaus also vary widely in their use of record email. The Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs created 736 record emails in 2013; the Bureau of International Organizations, 311; the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, 26; and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, only 22. IRM created 1,630 record emails, more than any other bureau in 2013.
Some bureaus increased usage when the OIG informed them that email retention could also work to their advantage. Not all paper trails are damning. Some are exculpatory. Certainly there are more of the former than the latter, hence the State Department's general reluctance to keep any more than .01% of its emails in any given year.

The OIG also noted that there is no centralized oversight of this system. Unsurprising, considering no one seems to want the job. Even when given a system that makes retention easy, the State Dept's staff -- from top to bottom -- has gone out of its way to avoid doing that very thing.

The OIG suggests further training, but that's not going to make much of a dent in the ingrained culture of secrecy common to many government agencies. It also suggests a handful of other bureaucratic fixes, many of which will likely be listed as "in the works" or "unstarted" when the next OIG report rolls around.

As for the report itself, it's quite possible this would never had been made public if not for recent events. It's marked "Sensitive but Unclassified" and carries this since-stricken warning in the opening pages.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: This report is intended solely for the official use of the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or any agency or organization receiving a copy directly from the Office of Inspector General. No secondary distribution may be made, in whole or in part, outside the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, by them or by other agencies of organizations, without prior authorization by the Inspector General. Public availability of the document will be determined by the Inspector General under the U.S. Code, 5 U.S.C. 552. Improper disclosure of this report may result in criminal, civil, or administrative penalties.
In other words, the secretive agency's internal report about its transparency-thwarting was supposed to remain a secret. The OIG blows the lid off the agency's willing failure to retain email records, and the State Department -- with the OIG's tacit approval -- elects to keep constituents from learning how its government is actively working to keep them separated from records they have every right to demand.

Filed Under: email, foia, inspector general, records, retain, state department, transparency


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  • identicon
    Michael, 12 Mar 2015 @ 6:29am

    What are you talking about? The NSA has a copy of every one of these emails.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 12 Mar 2015 @ 7:38am

      Re:

      "FOIA-able official records"

      In other words, they'll have them, but that doesn't mean you peasants get to see them...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Dee, 16 Mar 2015 @ 3:50pm

      Yep!

      NSA is using how many Giga Billions of Water per day to store every bit of information from emails to iphones, and they can't cough up the State Dept emails? If the NSA doesn't have them, you can bet the CIA does!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 16 Mar 2015 @ 4:19pm

        Re: Yep!

        NSA is using how many Giga Billions of Water per day to store every bit of information from emails to iphones, and they can't cough up the State Dept emails?

        If anybody requested them, they would probably either ask for proof the NSA actually has the info, or just claim a national security exemption.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Mar 2015 @ 6:45am

    In other words...

    They just got caught spending 99.99% of their e-mail resources on things that aren't job related? Talk about government waste...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Former Fed, 12 Mar 2015 @ 11:20am

      Re: In other words...

      NO - "job related" isn't the definition of "official record" for NARA purposes. Agency officials do get to decide which documents meet the criteria. NARA isn't trying to vacuum up every single byte - just important ones.

      And, yes - quite a lot of the email is social, just as it is in any organization.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 12 Mar 2015 @ 12:18pm

        Re: Re: In other words...

        Agency officials do get to decide which documents meet the criteria.

        That seems to be the problem right there. Letting the officials themselves decide which records are retained and which aren't just guarantees abuse.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Mar 2015 @ 7:08am

    Only Leaders lead by example. Rulers lead by exception.
    We haven't had a leader in a good long while.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Mar 2015 @ 7:17am

    And you should be THANKFUL that we're even giving you that, CITIZEN. Now pick up that can!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Matthew A. Sawtell, 12 Mar 2015 @ 9:45am

    If anything, it appears that the true lesson of Watergate..

    ... has not been lost to more than a few generations of politicians: Never leave an incriminating trail (paper, data, or otherwise).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Rambler330 (profile), 12 Mar 2015 @ 10:02am

    Why does the user/gov employee get to choose

    Which are "record emails"? All emails should be retained. So out the 1 billion emails in 2013, only 41,749 had to do with actual work?
    Seems we are paying a lot of people to not do any actual work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 12 Mar 2015 @ 10:48am

      Re: Why does the user/gov employee get to choose

      This was my thought. I infer from the article that the State department is allowing the creators of documents to decide whether they are "FOIA-able" or not?

      That's craziness. All records should be kept and the determination of whether they're subject to FOIA requests made by a different entity when the requests happen.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Former Fed, 12 Mar 2015 @ 12:23pm

        Re: Re: Why does the user/gov employee get to choose

        Speaking as as a low-level former federal employee who was not directly involved with the process -

        Official records are documents that meet the guidelines issued by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Agencies are supposed to hand over official records to NARA for preservation. NARA is not trying to collect every last document and communication.

        NARA is under-funded and under-staffed, and cannot impose penalties. So, agencies are pretty much free to hand over what they want and keep the rest.

        None of which has anything to do with the Freedom of Information Act. To the best of my knowledge, FOIA requests are not restricted to official documents.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Jay Mitsuru, 12 Mar 2015 @ 11:41pm

          Re: Re: Re: Why does the user/gov employee get to choose

          I'll chime in on this as well as a Federal (military) employee.
          The way my organization trains it (or maybe I should say 'the way I interpreted the training'), 'working documents' are not 'records'. The email my boss sends me saying, "Look at this document and give me a summary" is not a record. The replythat has my summary would become a record because it's "finished". And only one copy should be retained. So if I'm coordinating something over email with 10 people, and each replies to the group once, that's a whole bunch of emails that are likely to be stored as "1 e-mail". Likewise, we don't retain drafts, so a contract of some sort that's in review and has tracked comments on it probably won't be around to be found 1 year after the final is contract is awarded.
          I've been required a couple of times to perform searches on our SAN for information. Because of policies intended to maximize equipment lifespan and availability, emails are not generally kept there, and at my level I'm not actually authorized to search people's email accounts. I'm sure there's some other office whose personnel are in a position of greater 'trust' than myself that can do that. The question is who wants to be responsible for searching, compiling and indexing all that traffic for $35K a year, and how much confidence is anyone going to have in anything they're doing at that pay rate. Note that there are protected contracting discussions adn other things that, while completely 'Unclassified' are things that could certainly be misused. If the respect, compensation and whatnot offered to senior military leaders isn't enough to stop them from hitting thier kids or cheating on thier spouses what makes anyone think Larry from down the road is going to keep his mouth shut about the things he reads all day in the emails he's reviewing?
          Of course... maybe that'd be a good thing, since it'd represent a level of oversight that's not currently there. Thought I doubt it would take long for the 'truly nefarious' portions of our government to just start talking about thier backroom deals in person or through some other system.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            John Fenderson (profile), 13 Mar 2015 @ 8:39am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Why does the user/gov employee get to choose

            "The way my organization trains it (or maybe I should say 'the way I interpreted the training'), 'working documents' are not 'records'. The email my boss sends me saying, "Look at this document and give me a summary" is not a record. "


            Wow, then the system is even more messed up than I thought. Where I work all communications are archived and stored as business records -- because they are required to be by federal regulations.

            I'm dismayed, but not surprised, that the feds have such a huge double-standard here.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Former Fed, 13 Mar 2015 @ 11:18am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Why does the user/gov employee get to choose

              Official records are what gets sent to NARA for historical / archival purposes - documenting the governing and decision-making processes of the government for future generations. The process could use a lot of re-working.

              Retaining records for compliance reasons also has nothing to do with official records.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Mar 2015 @ 10:05am

    They learned from Nixon

    Watergate anyone?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Mar 2015 @ 10:21am

    Why the hell is retention "opt-in"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Eponymous Coward (profile), 13 Mar 2015 @ 7:50am

    The solution

    I believe we now have a worthwhile use for the NSA's Utah data center. They can repurpose the facility to store all the info that our government should be saving, rather than all our info that they should be leaving the hell alone.

    Judging from the track record, government officials can confidently hand over ALL emails, secure in the knowledge that nothing illegal will ever be uncovered once it's sent to Utah.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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