Updates on open government from the U.S. National Archives

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Open government endures in the nation’s capital. On November 19, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hosted a meeting between the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, senior officials, and representatives of civil society organizations that advocate for transparency and accountable government. Ferreiro has been hosting these meetings for nine years and counting. As in the past, I shared the agenda of our discussion online on the day of the meeting.

And, as in the past, NARA told me that the information they shared with us at the meeting was public – so I’ve written up what I learned, below.

On Kavanaugh records requests

The first topic on the agenda addressed Congressional and Freedom of Information Act requests and subsequent records disclosures stemming from associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s public service at the White House.

These records were the subject of considerable interest before his nomination and continue to be relevant to public understand of his public service and legal thinking, now that he has been confirmed to a seat on the nation’s highest court. (The White House invoked executive privilege on many of these documents.)

NARA’s chief counsel, Gary Stern, said that NARA has tried to be as transparent as possible about these records in response to requests from the U.S. Senate, highlighting the landing page for Kavanaugh’s records on Archives.gov. These requests comprise some 900,000 pages from Kavanaugh’s tenure as White House counsel in the Bush administration and 20,000 from his time on the special counsel’s team, of which 300,000 were processed by the end of October.

NARA could not process and disclose all of these records in their entirety prior to the hearing, Stern said. The remainder are pending, with another tranche of documents expected to go online in mid-December.

NARA determined that it was legally obligated to respond only to requests from the chairman of a given Senate or House Committee, citing an opinion by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Stern also noted a parallel process of review in which a private attorney, Bill Burke was involved in reviewing records for disclosure.

In answer to my question, NARA’s chief counsel confirmed that this situation was unprecedented, and said the scenario was neither addressed nor precluded by the statute.

As with the issue of requests by the minority party or the transparency of presidential libraries, NARA said that Congress would need to change the statute to address any loopholes.

Updates from the National Declassification Center (NDC)

The NDC is moving forward with declassification of more records from the Nixon presidency. It is also consolidating all classified records from the libraries of former administrations. NARA said it will announce a new National Declassification Center director this calendar year.

Separately, NDC chief operating officer William Bosanko said that NDC has sent CDs with more records from the Argentina Declassification Project to the National Security Council. NARA said that President Donald J. Trump will give the CDs to Argentine President Mauricio Macri at this week’s G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, as he did in 2017. The records on them will be disclosed to the public at the end November.

These disclosures by the State Department and US intelligence agencies are the result of actions directed by President Barack Obama in 2016, when he announced that the United States would declassify records about human rights abuses during Argentina’s dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983.

Updates from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO)

ISOO director Mark Bradley said that the office is making slow, deliberate, ongoing progress updating a new executive order on security classification system and has found it refreshing to find support in his work across agencies on the recommendations in ISOO’s annual report to the president. He noted that ISOO is facing the challenge of declining budgets at the same time a deluge of electronic records is inbound across the federal government.

Updates on records management

Laurence Brewer, the chief records officer of the United States, said NARA is continuing to work on updating the 2005 records guidance on Web records, with a goal of getting new guidance in place before 2020. NARA is focusing on modernization and transparency, and internally discussing how technology, resources, and sustainability. The updated guidance will include not just websites, but social media, instant messaging, cloud-based collaboration software like Slack, and ephemeral apps like Snapchat.

Brewer said that there will be a follow-up “very soon” on a 2017 meeting regarding this policy with me, Gavin Baker from the American Library Association, and the former leaders of the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project. Sunlight, the American Library Association, and OpenTheGovernment subsequently sent a letter to NARA advocating that the policy include proactive public engagement, including public explanation and narration of updates, downtime, or removals to public records online. I encouraged NARA to engage more public stakeholders in future discussions, particularly the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress.

Separately, NARA is evaluating Regulations.gov as a government-wide tool for sharing proposed schedules and gathering public comment, moving beyond email. I highlighted some concerns about the impact of limitations to the Regulations.gov API on public access to public comments, and encouraged NARA to ensure bulk open data access would be an option.

When asked about the failure of the Department of Homeland Security to create adequate documentation to enable the reunification of children with their parents when it began enforcing the Trump administration’s family separation policy, NARA’s position is that DHS should have been creating records sufficient to the need. (This fall, a former adviser in DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said Border Patrol and Immigrations Customs Enforcement agents did not consult with the office, nor create sufficient documentation to enable the Department of Health to reunite families.) Brewer said that NARA relies upon agencies to have policies in place for a given activity, although it does require agencies to conduct training at all levels and performs oversight triggered by risk assessments of self-reported data and unauthorized dispositions.

When asked about the use of phone calls to avoid creating records, Stern said that while there is a threshold need to create adequate paper documentation of public business, it’s subject to interpretation. NARA has talked with senior staff about the issue and unauthorized dispositions and will posting updates on its dashboard.

When asked about reports that the President of the United States has a habit of ripping up public records – and that the career civil servants at the records management office tasked with taping them back together had been terminated – NARA’s chief counsel said that it has no authority regarding violations of the Presidential Records Act. Archivist David Ferriero said that he is in regular contact with the White House and has provided guidance on presidential and federal records.

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