Administration faces big challenge in records preservation

By Feb. 1, the National Archives and Records Administration and the White House must provide congressional watchdogs with an update on preparations for the transition of all presidential records to the National Archives by January 2009. Concerns over progress might be well-founded: Proper handling of electronic documents, the need to identify and centralize pertinent records, and the sheer volume of information all leave the White House with a mammoth project on its hands.

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, which requires each president to maintain records of all activities, deliberations, decisions and policies that reflect on performance in office. At the end of a president's administration, the Archivist of the United States assumes responsibility for the custody, control, preservation of -- and access to -- presidential records.

With the end of President Bush's two terms drawing near, the White House has until two months after the election to provide his records to the National Archives. By Feb. 1, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wants an update on progress.

"Serious questions have been raised about whether the White House has sufficient systems to preserve presidential records and to prepare for the transition to the next president," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee's chairman, in letters to U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein and Counsel to the President Fred Fielding on Dec. 20, 2007. "According to information received by the committee, the White House has failed to implement a robust system for archiving e-mails and other electronic records, despite several efforts to do so."

Waxman referenced a 2005 review of White House servers that found numerous days of few or no e-mails among certain offices, as well as the discovery earlier this year that some White House officials used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts to exchange messages. He asked the White House and NARA to provide documents relating to the administration's potential failures to maintain Executive Office of the President e-mails, transfer of presidential records to the National Archives, and development or maintenance of electronic records management, e-mail archiving or e-mail retrieval systems. He also requested information about e-mail backup tapes.

"There are issues of policy and technology that are much bigger than the amount of [records] being managed," said Shawn McCarthy, director of government vendor programs at Falls Church, Va., research firm Government Insights. "How long does it have to be stored? How quickly does it need to be accessed? And how often does the medium it's on need to be renewed? Stored data can last longer or shorter than paper depending on how it's treated."

Electronic documents pose the biggest archiving challenge, in part because the federal government focused on paper until only recently. In August 1993, the Federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President -- a case involving a challenge to the government's plans to dispose of electronic mail and word processing records of Reagan, Bush and Clinton officials -- that electronic mail and word processing files must be managed as government records.

"One of the things we did was work with the Bush administration to understand the importance of their involvement in the systems that the federal government was using," said John Carlin, U.S. archivist from 1995 to 2005, and current visiting professor of political science at Kansas State University. "The ultimate preservation, efficient use and movement of digital information are dependent on uniformity and proper standards being used. We made progress, and I'm confident that continued. But there was endless work and challenges left. Preserving digital [records] over time is a challenge bigger than the archives; it's a challenge for the world."

One issue that could affect the transition is the lack of an effective records management system. In 2007, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the George Washington University's National Security Archive filed separate complaints, noting the Bush administration's failure to replace an electronic records management system when it switched e-mail systems in 2002.

Neither the White House nor the National Archives responded to requests for comment.

The January 2009 deadline does not apply to federal records, which are produced by agencies outside the Office of the President. Those agencies archive information on a rolling schedule -- transferring records of historical relevance to a records center maintained and operated by NARA when they're no longer necessary for daily operations. By Sept. 30, 2009, agencies must have NARA-approved lifecycle schedules for all records in electronic information systems that have been operational since Dec. 17, 2005, to determine which will be transferred to the National Archives and when.

The Federal Trade Commission "submitted a list of systems, and we're now working to develop a comprehensive plan that NARA can review to determine which portions have historic value and should be [preserved]," said Bonnie Curtin, FTC's records manager. The accepted standard is that 2 percent of records are determined to have historical value and therefore require transfer to NARA. "Different areas of government have very different roles. When you're talking about the president, whose records are practically always [kept] permanently, there needs to be different rules."

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