from the pretty-much-the-opposite-of-retention dept
When the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was established in 1934, it could not have possibly foreseen the exponential growth in records the move to electronic communications would create.
Perpetually short on funding, oversight, or (seemingly) interest in fulfilling its duties, the NARA has been forced to allow agencies to write their own rules on retention — something that further limits the power of taxpayers to understand what federal agencies are doing with their tax dollars or provide a comprehensive view of these agencies’ activities.
But the NARA hasn’t completely abdicated its duties in the face of this unprecedented wave of records. It is now asking tough questions of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — an agency that recently suggested it should be able to destroy misconduct records because it would lighten the load on the overloaded archival agency. Since NARA had already given ICE the option to treat misconduct records as “temporary,” CBP assumed it would be granted the same deference.
Now, CBP and NARA are interacting again. Only this time, it’s NARA demanding CBP do more to retain records, rather than less. As Ben Goggins and Louise Matsakis report for NBC News, CBP officers and employees are using ephemeral messaging services to conduct government business — something that has the potential to thwart accountability efforts, NARA’s archival obligations, and undermine public trust in border security efforts.
In October, Laurence Brewer, the chief records officer of the National Archives and Records Administration, told officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection he was worried about how the agency was using an app called Wickr. The Amazon-owned encrypted messaging platform is known for its ability to automatically delete messages.
Brewer, who is responsible for ensuring that government officials handle records correctly, wrote in a letter that he was “concerned about agencywide deployment of a messaging application that has this functionality without appropriate policies and procedures governing its use.”
The letter [PDF], sent late last year, also mentions the use of WhatsApp, which also allows timed destruction of messages. The only response from the agency so far has been in response to litigation recently filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Tammy T. Melvin, a spokesperson for CBP, said the agency could not comment on pending litigation. “The distribution/use of Wickr is currently under review,” she said in an email. Since 2019, she said, the agency has only used the app in “several small-scale pilots.”
Whatever the alleged limitations of the Wickr rollout, the CBP has yet to provide any details to CREW in response to its FOIA request. CBP has ignored request for information on the agency’s Wickr use since last September, approximately one month before the National Archives began asking some of the same questions.
It’s not that government agents and officials shouldn’t have access to secure messaging services. It’s that these need to be deployed with firm rules in place that minimize destruction of communications the government is obligated to turn over to the public. And it certainly shouldn’t be left up to government employees’ discretion which communications should be saved and which should be automatically deleted just because the platform provides them that option. The government exists to serve the public, not the other way around.