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.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
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.
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.