Since The National Archives Can't Keep Up With Incoming Records, Agencies Have Been Given Permission To Rewrite Their Own Histories

from the build-your-own-Greatest-Hits-collection-on-the-public-dime dept

The federal government's recent past is disappearing alarmingly quickly. And the only thing that can stop this from happening is a collection of legislators who've collectively shown for years they just don't care. The National Archives has been given the monumental task of housing billions of records. It has no more room to store paper documents and has demanded federal agencies only send it digital records going forward.

This has only created more problems. Federal agencies aren't being given extra funds or staff to convert existing paper documents and the National Archives has seen its budget cut by Congress for three straight years. The amount of incoming material has tripled since 1985 but the National Archives has fewer employees than it did more than three decades ago and its budget has not even kept up with inflation.

So, what's the end result? Evidence of government wrongdoing is being purged, as Matthew Connelly reports for the New York Times.

In 2017, a normally routine document released by the archives, a records retention schedule, revealed that archivists had agreed that officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could delete or destroy documents detailing the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants. Tens of thousands of people posted critical comments, and dozens of senators and representatives objected. The National Archives made some changes to the plan, but last month it announced that ICE could go ahead and start destroying records from Mr. Trump’s first year, including detainees’ complaints about civil rights violations and shoddy medical care.

Thanks to an unwillingness to treat archiving as essential, Congress is encouraging future abuses by federal agencies. If agencies know there's no room in the archives, records of their actions will simply vanish once they hit the federally-approved expiration date. Given the stonewalling that tends to greet records requests for evidence of government wrongdoing, some of the government's sins may never be exposed. All agencies have to do is make it to the destruction date without being hit with a preservation order. Very few public records requesters have the means to take the government to court and without any significant modification to destruction protocols, the government has the Archives' blessing to whitewash its past.

ICE is only one agency directly benefiting from an underfunded and overworked agency. Other agencies engaged in questionable behavior are being allowed to rewrite their own history by excising the worst parts.

The Department of the Interior and the National Archives have decided to delete files on endangered species, offshore drilling inspections and the safety of drinking water. The department even claimed that papers from a case where it mismanaged Native American land and assets — resulting in a multibillion-dollar legal settlement — would be of no interest to future historians (or anyone else).

If any agency has particularly troublesome documents on hand, it can seek "temporary" designation for them, removing its obligation to archive them. As it has become evident over the years, Congress (for multiple sessions under multiple presidents) doesn't really care what happens to these public records. Consequently, federal agencies have been destroying more and archiving less.

Connelly's report says the CIA has released fewer than 10% of its estimated 160 million paper records to the National Archives and the percentage released each year has been decreasing steadily. The report also notes the State Department is attempting to do more with less -- turning over the whole process to machine learning which will perform a nuanced task of designating files with "historic" interest mechanically. This may eliminate any employee's personal interest in vanishing documents, but just as easily could make it worse by introducing new biases that result in increased purging.

The Archives can't reverse this trend on its own. It needs the backing of Congress and the President. But it's unlikely a regime change will change anything. This downward trend is nearly four decades old at this point and the appointment of new department heads only seems to result in additional "temporary" designations, piling new exemptions on top of those that already exist. History may be written by the winners, but at the National Archives, history just simply isn't being written by anyone.

Filed Under: archives, congress, destruction of records, funding, ice, lost history, national archives, records, rewriting history


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 7 Feb 2020 @ 2:00am

    ... what atrocities?

    Winners may write the history books, but if that's too much work simply make sure that any 'inconvenient' records are destroyed, leaving only the bits that make you look like a winner.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 3:35am

    Perhaps they ought to reassign the money for that bit barn in Utah to preserving government records.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 4:12am

    "Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped."

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 4:29am

    Well, you know how it is. History is written in sand. And with rising water levels from global warming...

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 5:01am

    Hell Bound Train - No Deadman Switch

    Wiping out history in order to establish ones self as the original leader of the new whatever they call it government is just one of many items in the Dictator's Playbook.

    The playbook shows what seems to be a well established pattern of behavior that some idiots seem to be following. I think we all know where this road goes.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 5:37am

      Re: Hell Bound Train - No Deadman Switch

      Seems the tree of liberty stands long overdue for refreshment of its natural manure.

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

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 Feb 2020 @ 7:38am

        So when are you going to start spilling that blood?

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 8:05am

        Re: Re: Hell Bound Train - No Deadman Switch

        I'm sick and tired of hearing about this friggin tree of liberty crapola.
        wrt the us, that tree was logged long ago and is probably 2x4s in someone's house.

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

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 10 Feb 2020 @ 6:06am

        Re: Re: Hell Bound Train - No Deadman Switch

        "Seems the tree of liberty stands long overdue for refreshment of its natural manure."

        Let me know when the US is under the heel of King George again then. Up until you actually get a bona fide tyrant it's a sad fact that the current system is held in place by the majority of the US voting citizenry who drank the kool-aid to the dregs.

        Sure, the current president is a chubby cheese-colored clown in a ridiculous combover who would dearly love to be Kim Jong-un or Xi Jin Ping...

        But he's not.

        He's a sleazier version of P.T. Barnum whose following consist of the slow-witted scrapie-riddled sheep who follow Fox & Friends like a Carpenter Zombie the scent of fresh brains.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 5:51am

    Nothing to see here, move along.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 7:31am

    There was never anything to see. You can check the archive if you don't believe me.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 7:33am

    Happy is the country that has no history.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 8:08am

      Re:

      I think that holding two conflicting opinions at the same time can led to mental issues. There may even be a term to describe it.

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

  • identicon
    Bruce C., 7 Feb 2020 @ 10:29am

    The war on truth...

    Is thereby proven to be a bipartisan project.

    We really need a moderate 3rd party to form a swing block in congress that can keep the current two from pursuing their distinct forms of insanity.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Feb 2020 @ 12:20pm

      Re: The war on truth...

      There could be a new left, dems would be the new repubs and the repubs would be the Screaming Lunatic Party.

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

  • identicon
    bob, 7 Feb 2020 @ 10:43am

    Without accountability nothing will change for the better.

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

  • identicon
    bob, 7 Feb 2020 @ 10:56am

    ultra fail.

    This is quite depressing news about the archive. I know they aren't perfect at storing everything of value. But the lack of preservation of recent information and events is especially jolting. How can anyone say info like drilling records, ice actions, and deliberations of each agency for the last 4 or even 10 years is not of interest. I dont think anyone can know what is of interest until many decades later. But without these metrics and knowledge the leaders will just keep making the same mistakes in a never ending cycle.

    The U.S. truly has its priorities backwards when the preservers of knowledge (archivists, librarians) and the sharers of knowledge (teachers) are given so little consideration and respect.

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.