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.