Reader Kurt Hoglund writes to comment on the issues John raised in the note he appended to “Pants, socks, trailer, trash: The OIG report” yesterday:
From my time in the Defense Mapping Agency/National Imagery and Mapping Agency/National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, working for long years on a digital conversion project for the reprographic material (repromate) used to image printing plates, I also had to deal with the National Archives and their view on Federal documents. My information stops once our project got thoroughly up and running in 1998-99, but the problems seen then in NARA were many. Let me try to get to the technical, not legal, end of things in this post.
As you know the precedence for any paperwork is that written on by an individual by hand. NARA grew up with that and its regulations revolved around that. With that understanding, copies of “working papers” or other interim documents were usually destroyed via its security classification designator. NARA, while it sets rules for what is and is not acceptable, never did standardize itself for file types, scanning methods and such while I actively worked in that field, but still mandated that physical, hardcopy be kept by Agencies until they could get their act together on the digital side. That was a “Real Soon Now” concept…even as the Library of Congress and NARA started to do digital conversion work on texts and documents in the late 1990’s, the standardization of that was not coming forward quickly. For Presidential Administrations, however, NARA is in a real bind as the last few weeks before it leaves office, the Administration goes through a destruction of all non-essential interim work documents to help keep the records down in volume.
With all of that said, the guidelines for hand-written material remain and even “copies” that have hand written notes are to be retained, especially on final documents or meeting documents that may have only an ephemeral record. NARA does try to review all of that, but its backlog is huge and much just gets a quick glance, page count and filing number, before getting put into safe storage. Digital works are whatever format, data type and media type the Administration used on its servers and that varies over time as technology does and NARA had no standard on that. Tape storage, while cheap, requires active library tape retentioning and periodic read of all files on a tape, then a rewrite that is kept track of and a checksum insurance that it went well at each stage and is repeated if necessary. The life expectancy of the data on mag tape is 3-5 years, although I have personally seen 18 month old tapes that are useless, even when properly handled and cared for. CDs, circa 2001, would take forever to burn. Even with all of that, recreating what was said and done in meetings is still represented by the meeting minutes and notations on documents.
The time and cost factor to duplicate hardcopy is enormous, and NARA, serving as the Government Archives, must distribute that load to the Agencies who then do not get that properly funded by Congress. Even with that, NARA is overwhelmed by Presidential documents, Congressional documents and other vital working papers of the Judiciary and Executive that do not properly fall under Agencies.
What this means in the Berger case is that those hard copy documents were included in the Archives because they had hand-written material upon them which may or may not have been captured elsewhere. Those documents were most likely not copied as they are late in the Administration and getting to the oldest documents, especially the digital media circa 1992, was essential. It is unlikely that any hand-written notations on such documents were preserved via copy or digital scanning. They were true historical documents capturing a snapshot in time in the Administration and the thoughts of those individuals involved with the events of the day.
Those documents belong to the People, not to any individual. Sandy Berger was destroying historical records and putting them into a “memory hole.”
On the one hand, Mr. Hoglund suggests that Sandy Berger was out to do some serious damage. On the other hand, Mickey Kaus, in a characteristically contrarian and funny post, buys Sandy Berger’s Feng Shui excuse, I think.
JOHN adds: At the Forum Tom W. describes similar experiences at the National Archives: