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


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

    So when are you going to start spilling that blood?


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