February 14, 2020
By David S. Ferrierro, Archivist of the United States
Recent opinion pieces and news media reports have spread a number of factual errors and misleading statements about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Here are the claims, followed by our corrections and clarifications:
- Claim: NARA employees were sent to the White House to tape together documents torn by the President, and that they were fired by the White House.
Reality: This is untrue. No NARA employees were sent to the White House or were fired regarding this matter.
- Claim: NARA announced in January 2020 that U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could destroy records from President Trump’s first year, including detainees’ complaints about civil rights violations and shoddy medical care.
Reality: This is a gross mischaracterization of the facts. On December 11, 2019, the agency approved a records disposition schedule for the ICE Detainee Records. The schedule, which covers records related to deaths of detainees and allegations of sexual assault and abuse of detainees, was approved after NARA took into account more than 23,000 public comments over more than two years. The end result of this extensive review process is that ICE’s detainee death review files are now designated as records of permanent historical value. The new schedule also increases the period of time, now 25 years, that ICE must retain records involving allegations of sexual assault and abuse. These decisions were based on long-established records appraisal policies and procedures, consistent with the Federal Records Act, and are thoroughly explained in the publicly available response to comments posted on Regulations.gov. (Learn about how record schedules are created and how the public can comment on them in the video “The Public's Role in Records Schedules.”)
You can read more about the process in the Records Express blog post “Immigration and Customs Enforcement Scheduled Approved.” Moreover, even when an approved records disposition schedule is in place, agencies may not dispose of records that are needed for litigation or in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, ensuring that records are available for government accountability.
- Claim: NARA will allow the Department of the Interior to delete files relating to endangered species, offshore drilling inspections, and the safety of drinking water.
Reality: This is not accurate. The proposed records disposition schedule is still in the public review stage, and no final decisions have been made. The Federal Government typically designates less than 5 percent of its records as of permanent historical value. The remaining “temporary” records are kept, often for decades, for evidentiary and other purposes according to approved records schedules that have gone through public comment. The Federal Records Act requires NARA to work with agencies in a process for authorizing the destruction of unneeded records after an appropriate period of time. Thus, focusing on the records destroyed without also considering those identified as of permanent historical value on these same topics presents an incomplete picture.
- Claim: Virtually all of the records of an under secretary at the State Department have been designated as temporary.
Reality: This is not accurate. The claim was based on a draft schedule proposed by the Department, which has not yet been appraised by NARA and does not account for multiple records series covering senior officials’ records as permanent. Further, the overwhelming majority of correspondence of State Department under secretaries is captured in email, which are also permanent records.
- Claim: The State Department will begin using artificial intelligence algorithms to distinguish permanent and temporary records, that NARA is unaware of this, and that the records will not be turned over to the National Archives.
Reality: NARA is aware of the State Department's efforts to use artificial intelligence in better managing their records. Permanent records, however they are identified, will be turned over to the NARA in accordance with the Federal Records Act.
- Claim: NARA will stop accepting paper records because it has run out of space.
Reality: While we do face space challenges, the implication that those constraints caused NARA’s new direction is not true. Last year the Office of Management and Budget and NARA issued Memorandum M-19-21 directing all agencies to transition to electronic records within a stipulated time frame to achieve more efficient and effective electronic recordkeeping. This is a groundbreaking step in transitioning our government to a digital future, in step with the way modern records are created and with the expectations of the public and other stakeholders in getting access to their government’s records.
The guidance allows for exceptions but does not exempt classified records and, even with exceptions, agencies must continue transitioning to digital government and electronic recordkeeping to better manage all records, including older paper records.
M-19-21 does not direct or authorize agencies to destroy records, nor do any NARA policies direct or allow agencies to destroy or delete records outside of established records scheduling processes that include public input. M-19-21 provides a framework for discussions and oversight to address compliance.
- Claim: NARA does not plan to maintain any more Presidential Libraries.
Reality: This is incorrect. Instead of constructing a new building for NARA to house Obama administration records and artifacts, the Obama Foundation will fund the digitization of the unclassified paper records. We will store the originals in existing NARA facilities. This enables the creation of a truly digital library when combined with the other 95 percent of the Obama records that were created and remain in electronic form. While this arrangement is different than our other 13 Presidential Libraries, we have established the Barack Obama Presidential Library, with a dedicated staff to preserve and make accessible the records of the 44th President.
Taken together, the errors and inaccuracies circulating in the news media paint a wholly misleading picture of the state of Federal recordkeeping, the commitment of our staff to our mission, and the role and performance of the National Archives and Records Administration.
NARA will continue to use the Federal Records Act to identify the records that are most valuable for historical research for preservation in the archives and to authorize the disposition, after the opportunity for public comment, of records that have only temporary value. We will work to improve and modernize recordkeeping throughout the government, acknowledging that the vast majority of government records are now electronic. Although there are certainly challenges ahead as we transition to an increasingly digital model, we look forward to working with Federal agencies and the public to identify solutions to ensure that records are well managed and that NARA can continue to identify and preserve the most historically valuable records of the United States.