Twenty two years ago, I became the eighth Archivist of the United States, appointed by President Clinton. I followed in the footsteps of a series of academic historians who saw records to be of value almost exclusively for the writing of history. With their focus on history, they had their eyes and interests on permanent records, primarily paper, that would be available long after their creation. Worrying about new electronic records would be left for someone else to deal with many years later.
So it shouldn’t have been too shocking that one of my first lessons at that job was that the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) did not even consider email a record. By my third month, we made it official that emails were records and determined that they must be kept for a period of time, but for the President, all emails would be permanent records. Needless to say, this brought challenges not only to NARA but to all Federal agencies creating email records.
Next, NARA expanded the understanding of reasons why records are kept, preserved, and made available—to include holding government accountable as well as protecting rights and entitlements. Regarding accountability, without records being kept, how do citizens, elected officials, and government leaders raise issues of concern for action and resolution? An example I recall was a developer in Virginia who was taken to court and on the way to prison for not following Corp of Engineer guidelines. That is, until records were found that it was the Corp’s fault and not the developer. Regarding entitlements, for example, how could veterans successfully apply for their benefits if there was no record to prove he or she were honorably discharged?
Now fast forward to today, with technology being put to use to basically deny future use and access to records after their initial purpose was served. Before I go on, it is important to distinguish encryption (scrambling of sensitive communications for security purposes) from disappearing messages. Encrypted messages can still be archived as long as someone retains the decryption key necessary to unscramble the message. But messages that self-destruct or automatically erase are difficult, if not impossible, to record.
Keep in mind that it is only natural that many in government today would be happy to know that certain records were never going to come back to haunt them. This is not a hypothetical problem. It is real. And it has become part of daily life in a chaotic and leaky White House that already had problems with public trust and is currently the subject of ongoing investigations where records will be needed to uncover the truth. It is also worth noting that, while some of these encryption apps have reportedly been used by officials to communicate with the press or leak illuminating information, this practice becomes a double-edged sword when it either undermines our national security interests or means taking every White House staffer at their word that they are not using these applications to conduct any official business—knowing the contents of their messages will disappear automatically and there will be no “paper trail” of said communications ever taking place.
So now, perhaps more than ever, it is essential that the records they are creating are kept and made accessible as appropriate. Only then will the legislative and judicial branches of government have access to the records to be able to hold government executive branch officials accountable for any wrongdoing that has taken place or could in the future.
I know for a fact that my friends at NARA are scrambling to do everything they can to address the encryption issue. I fear the problem will be not having the resources to carry out their responsibility under the Federal Records Act. This is much more than a government problem, for it will be all too often citizens who are negatively impacted. I know for now this issue is a long way from the midwest and our current challenges, but destruction of records really needs to be something we take very seriously. If records are being destroyed in Washington D.C. today, how will anyone be held accountable and how will history be accurately written?