Thursday, November 13, 2014

Congress Just Gave the Archivist the Power to Protect the Panetta Review from the CIA

With a voice vote in the House agreeing to Senate amendments, Congress has now passed, and is sending to the President, H.R. 1233, the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014, that finally, definitively gives authority to the Archivist of the United States to make determinations about what is, and is not, a "record" that are binding on federal agencies.  I'll explain in a second why this section of the bill is important, but here it is in all its glory - frame it and put it on the wall:


Why should you care?  If you care about FOIA, accountability, or the historical record, this authority allows the Archivist to close up - or at least tighten up considerably - the horrible loophole in the law that has been manipulated in a long line of cases of government document destruction or alienation -- from the State Department's indefensible decision to allow Henry Kissinger to remove (and treat as his personal property) the transcripts of his official telephone calls as the Secretary of State all the way up to the CIA's destruction of the interrogation tapes. This is the same loophole that could legitimately endanger the long-term survival of the CIA's "Panetta Review" and necessitated the actions of the SSCI staff in exfiltrating a copy from the CIA to a Senate vault (as I described at length here - it is not a conspiracy theory), which is further complicated now by fears that new leadership at the SSCI will return the Panetta Review to the exclusive custody of the CIA.

How does the loophole work?

The legal definition of "record" is - and will continue to be (the new bill tweaks it slightly) - broad and expansive and includes all documentary material made or received by an agency that is preserved or "appropriate for preservation."  The "appropriate for preservation" language is the Achilles heel, because up until now the authority for making that determination has been left to the agencies (incorrectly in my view, but that's another story).  Thus agencies, which as the courts have noted, have a "built-in incentive to dispose of records relating to 'mistakes,'" can simply decide that material such as videotapes depicting the torture of detainees are nevertheless not "appropriate for preservation," ergo they are not records, ergo the federal records laws do not apply to them, ergo the agency can destroy them at its discretion.

With the Kissinger transcripts the debate over who had the authority to decide what documents were "appropriate for preservation" resulted in this 1981 OLC opinion  that found that the Archivist [the successor to the GSA in the opinion] "is not authorized to promulgate standards or guidelines that have a binding effect on the agency's determination as to whether a document constitutes a 'record.'"  Once the President makes H.R. 1233 a law, the OLC needs to revisit and withdraw that opinion.

NARA itself also bears some blame.  When it later promulgated regulations in the early 1990s that were designed to clarify the definition of "record" its proposed regulation had a forceful, if admittedly circular, statement that "appropriate for preservation" meant "documentary materials made or received that should be filed, stored, or otherwise systematically maintained by an agency because of the evidence of agency activities," 55 Fed. Reg. 741 (proposed Jan. 9, 1990) (emphasis added).  It gave away the store, however, in the final rule which became "documentary materials made or received which, in the judgment of the agency, should be filed, stored . . ." 36 C.F.R. § 1222.10(b)(6) (emphasis added).  Again, once the President makes H.R. 1233 a law, NARA needs to revisit this regulation.

To be clear, the Archivist neither has the funding, nor the personnel, nor the appetite to look over the shoulder of every federal employee to micromanage whether each email is, or is not, a record, but this bill, once signed by the President, will give the Archivist an important power that should not be left to rot on the vine.

I propose that the Archivist's first use of this power should be to send a letter to the CIA stating that the Archivist has made a binding determination that the CIA documents collectively referred to as the "Panetta Review" are permanent federal records that can never be destroyed.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Haditha Massacre: After 9 Years Still Unanswered Questions About Destroyed Documents


Based on documents recently obtained via FOIA, there are still two open inquiries by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) into the possible unlawful destruction or removal of records related to the killings of 24 Iraqis in Haditha in November 2005 - 9 years ago this month. Despite a letter from the Marine Corps in mid-2013 that purported to finally respond to the inquiries -- which, as I'll explain below, is completely inadequate -- NARA has not closed out the inquiries, nor should it.

The first unauthorized destruction inquiry began in August 2006 following a New York Times article entitled "Marines May Have Excised Evidence on 24 Iraqi Deaths" which stated that an investigation by Maj. Gen Eldon Bargewell had uncovered, among other things, possible tampering with a unit log book "which was meant to be a daily record of major incidents the marines' company encountered" but which "had all the pages missing for Nov. 19, the day of the killings, and that those portions had not been found."  The initial NARA inquiry letter is here.  (As an aside, the fact that NARA had to learn about this from a news article is arguably itself evidence that the Department of the Navy/Marine Corps "did not follow the law").

The second inquiry began in December 2011 (NARA letter here) following another stunning New York Times article entitled "Junkyard Gives Up Secret Accounts of Massacre in Iraq" that was based on 400 pages of classified interviews related to an investigation of the Haditha killings found in an Iraqi junkyard where they were being burned by local Iraqis.


In both cases the Department of the Navy initially responded to NARA by stating that a substantive response would have to yield to ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigations (2006 letter and 2011 letter).  Yet released emails (see, e.g., here) also show that it was thereafter left to NARA to attempt repeatedly to follow up on its inquiries.   The Navy and Marine Corps appeared both disorganized and dismissive of the NARA inquiries.  In one 2012 email, for example, the Navy asked an inquiring NARA representative, "Who is lighting the fire on you at NARA?"


Finally, last year a May 30, 2013 memorandum from the Commandant of the Marine Corps (signed by the Director of Marine Corp Staff) purported to address, at last, both NARA inquiries. The memo simply stated, however, that "regarding alleged destruction of records, a thorough and extensive review of available documentation and previous investigations was conducted.  As a result of this review, there were no findings which revealed destruction or unauthorized removal of records" (emphasis mine).

A superficial reading of this carefully-worded paragraph might give the impression that the Navy/Marine Corps actually investigated the questions posed by NARA.  Instead, it appears -- as the letter in fact states -- that they simply reviewed the "documentation and previous investigations" into the Haditha matter generally and there were "no [formal] findings" of "destruction or unauthorized removal of records."  This is supported by an email exchange that preceded the formal response in which NARA tried to clarify whether the Navy had actually completed an "investigation into the alleged destruction of Haditha records" and the Navy representative responded that it was the "investigation into Haditha in general."  This is wholly inadequate for several reasons.

First, the lack of a specific relevant "finding" in one of the various criminal investigations about the Haditha killings is irrelevant unless one of them was tasked specifically with looking at, and reporting back on, whether there was an unauthorized destruction or removal of federal records, regardless of whether it justified criminal charges.

Second, to the extent the records of those investigations are public, they do appear on their face to show records destruction.  The 2006 New York Times article, for example, indicated that the destruction of evidence related to the log book arose in the context of the investigation by Gen. Bargewell.  The text of the resulting report was later made public here and it does include sections indicating possible destruction of records relating to a log book, including this one:


A more detailed accounting of these facts would be available in the interviews to which the footnotes above cite as well as other materials cited in the report, but they are not publicly available (so far as I am aware).  Additional evidence on this point also comes in the form of a subsequent Article 32 hearing in 2007 for CPT Randy Stone, in which 1SG Albert Espinosa testified that the "log books from Nov. 19 were incomplete or missing." In the case of the 2011 NARA inquiry, the factual predicate is even more easily verified: the New York Times has copies of classified federal records they obtained from an Iraqi junkyard!

To be clear, it would be possible for the Navy/Marine Corps to have investigated these claims specifically and to have concluded that there was insufficient factual support to conclude that pages in the log book were destroyed at all or to conclude that the destruction of the records in the Iraqi junkyard -- while undertaken in an incompetent manner that created a serious security incident -- was not unauthorized records destruction because they were disposable reference copies or otherwise covered by an approved records schedule.  But there is no indication that this is what occurred, despite years of delay.

The larger point is that in cases such as this, where publicly available evidence clearly supports at least a prima facie case of unauthorized destruction, NARA ought to require agencies to explain what investigative steps were undertaken and describe its analysis in determining whether or not the destruction was unauthorized, rather than an inexplicable, conclusory response of "no unauthorized destruction."  Part of the value of these NARA inquiries is to identify agency misinterpretations and misapplications of the federal records laws in order to remedy them to prevent more widespread destruction.

To NARA's credit, despite the May 2013 letter from the Marine Corps, NARA continued to list both inquiries as still open as of the end of fiscal year 2013 and, based on the results of recent FOIA requests, nothing has changed.




Finally, while the significance of these NARA inquiries extends far beyond the question of missing pages in a unit log book or some binders in a junkyard (as mentioned above), those missing pages are more than important enough.  If the IRS undertook Herculean efforts (see pp. 5-7 in the attachment) to try to resurrect probably meaningless emails of Lois Lerner, surely we can expect the United States Marine Corps to provide a meaningful response to NARA regarding records relevant to a horrific event in which 24 human beings were killed and for which Marines were charged with crimes.  Even though the criminal investigations may be finished, for the historical accounting for Haditha - which is already mentioned in the same breath as My Lai - every record counts.

Monday, October 27, 2014

CIA Cannot Be Trusted to Destroy "Non-Senior Email"

On September 17, 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) published in the Federal Register a Notice of a new proposed records schedule (N1-263-14-1) from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that would make certain "Non-Senior Email" temporary and ultimately disposable.


The "full" proposed schedule - which effectively is only one-page long - is here and NARA's appraisal of the proposed schedule here.  I have submitted a comment to NARA on the proposed schedule that argues that the Archivist of the United States should not approve this schedule.  The main thrust of my comment is (1) the proposed schedule is dangerously ambiguous, (2) it rests on suspect assumptions, and (3) CIA simply cannot be trusted with the extremely broad discretion to destroy records that this ambiguous schedule provides - for reasons I have previously documented here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The full text of my comment is posted here.

Earlier coverage of the proposed schedule by Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News is here.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

DoD Policy Gave Al Qaeda Members Money Back in Iraq, but Keeps Money of Cleared & Transferred GTMO Detainees

On the heels of the U.S. government continuing to claim that GTMO detainees are still not "persons" under RFRA even though for-profit corporations are, Jason Leopold has a new piece on Vice News called "By Asking for His Wallet Back, a Gitmo Detainee May have Revealed US War Crimes" that describes the U.S. government's refusal to return seized money to former GTMO detainee Djamel Ameziane who is now back home, and destitute, in Algeria.  The government's refusal is based on a purported "policy" (that it has not produced) not to return seized money to released GTMO detainees despite the clear rule under the law of armed conflict that money of detainees remains their personal property and should be returned to them.  The filings by Ameziane's lawyer (see the motion for return of property) flesh out this basic, and very clear, rule in the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and customary international law.

The government's response (see gov't opposition here) is not to argue in any depth that their "policy" conforms with international law, but rather that the detainees have no right under current law and D.C. Circuit case law to seek a court's help in challenging it.  The government's only justification for this policy is to prevent the detainee's personal money - even if all they had were very small sums - from being used "in a manner that would adversely impact the safety and security of the United States" by, for example, funding "terrorism."

There are a lot of problems with the government's position, but what I want to focus on here is that this "policy" for GTMO detainees appears to be the exact opposite of the policy for detainees in Iraq, even if they were found to be members of Al Qaeda.  As explained below, provided the sum was less than $5000, the U.S. military, in accordance with the law of armed conflict, would automatically return seized money to released detainees (of many different kinds) in Iraq, which makes the GTMO policy all the more puzzling and unjustified.

In particular, what purports to be the Standard Operating Procedures for Iraqi detention operations under Task Force 134 dated February 2008 (posted by Wikileaks here) contains detailed guidance on the treatment of property seized from detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq (see pp. 42-50), including, especially, the impounding, receipting, and ultimate return of seized detainee money.  The Task Force 134 policy attempts to follow fairly closely the law of armed conflict standards and normal U.S. military regulations for the disposition of detainee currency.  The policy also contains a reasonable exception to the procedure in cases in which a detainee is found with "large sums of Allied/U.S. currency or negotiable instruments" (defined to mean $5000 or more) whereby an investigation is undertaken to see whether the detainee in fact has a personal legal claim to the currency.  This is consistent with the law of armed conflict which protects only "personal" property (as opposed to enemy government property that might be in a detainee's possession) and is reasonable in that in only is triggered by large sums (unlike in the case of Ameziane and other GTMO detainees).

In addition to being yet another troubling departure from legal standards for GTMO detainees, Leopold's piece also quotes Eugene Fidell from Yale Law School who makes an even more compelling argument that the GTMO policy is simply mean spirited. "To take this person's entire net estate and just hold onto it demeans us."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Does the White House NSA Proposal Enable A Retention-Free Phone Plan?

While the details of President Obama's proposal to change the NSA's § 215 metadata program are still extremely limited, the proposal on its face appears to create an opportunity for an enterprising, aggressive telephone company to offer a retention-free phone plan - the "Snowden Plan" we'll call it.

How so?

The White House proposal purports to leave the telephone records at the telecoms only "for the length of time they currently do today."  As fleshed out by Charlie Savage, the Administration appears to intend to rely upon the FCC's 18-month "retention of telephone toll records" regulation at 47 CFR § 42.6.  Yes, remarkably, this is the same 18-month retention period that the Obama Administration has been actively pretending did not exist (see earlier post here) when it repeatedly and unambiguously asserted that government retention was necessary because the telephone companies "have no legal obligation" (really, watch that clip) to keep such records and only retain them for their own business purposes.

If the Administration now wants to change course and rely upon this same regulation, it should provide an incentive for at least one phone company to aggressively utilize the government's earlier attempts to undermine it, in order to create the most privacy-friendly phone plan allowed by law.

As I said, the Administration is now on the record, repeatedly, as asserting that --  absent the FISC orders -- only the business purposes of the telephone companies control retention. Verizon has argued today (h/t Emptywheel) that going forward companies should also not be required "to store data for longer than . . . they already do for business purposes."  There are legitimate "business purposes" for retaining phone data for at least some period, such as the need for records in resolving billing disputes with customers. However, post-Snowden a potentially more powerful business purpose would be to promote a popular phone plan that utilizes its own "minimization procedures" by limiting retention of such phone data to hours or minutes and finding alternative ways to serve other business needs.

What about the regulation?  Well, in complaining about the problems with the regulation years ago, the DOJ acknowledged plausible interpretations that could avoid the retention period. In particular, in 2006 the DOJ acknowledged the age of the regulation and its outdated usage of "toll records" noting that as telephone carriers have
increasingly moved away from classic billing models, in which charges are itemized and billed by type of service, to non-measured, bundled, and flat-rate service plans, some carriers have claimed that call records under such new plans are not covered by Section 42.6 because they are not "toll records." Therefore, these carriers have argued that no records need be retained.
The fact that the regulation did not substantively change following this could arguably be viewed as a "ratification" of such interpretations similar to that urged by the government in arguing that Congress knowingly "ratified" the Executive's secret interpretations of § 215.  Our enterprising telecom could explore these and other ways of avoiding the regulatory retention requirement that are both creative and legal.

I realize of course that this would not necessarily avoid other requirements under the proposal (for example, once a number is identified to the telecom it may have to produce "ongoing and prospective" records).  And the Administration can figure out a way either to shore up the regulation or buttress it with statute, but it seems to me that a telecom could create some good will by at least attempting to be aggressive in proposing such a plan to customers. Doing so could also have the ancillary benefit of helping to smoke out the real angles of the proposal that will undoubtedly require a lot more of telecoms than what is in their business interests and details that are surely already more thought out than the White House has disclosed.