Timely Article Highlights the Loss of Federal Electronic Government Information

September 15, 2008

Robert Pear of The New York Times succinctly describes the enormous challenges of preserving the vast array of federal online government information in an article published on September 13, 2008, entitled, “In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip into Oblivion.” The article captures a key concern raised by AALL in a letter to members of Congress last April about the short-sighted and disappointing decision of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) not to harvest agency Web sites at the end of this administration. In the front page article, Acting Washington Affairs Representative Mary Alice Baish expresses AALL’s concern that, when a new administration is sworn in next year, huge amounts of information on agency Web sites from the past eight years of the Bush administration will disappear.

AALL’s Government Relations Policy includes “Principles and Core Values Concerning Public Information on Government Web Sites” that explicitly state that information on government Web sites must be preserved and that,

Snapshots of the complete underlying database content of dynamic Web sites should be taken regularly and archived in order to have a permanent record of all additions, changes, and deletions to the underlying data.

AALL’s policy states unequivocally that it is government’s responsibility to ensure the entire life-cycle of information on their Web sites, including its accessibility, reliability, official status, comprehensives and preservation.

As we reported in the blog last month regarding NARA’s decision not to harvest agency Web sites, the Library of Congress, the California Digital Library, the University of North Texas Libraries, the Internet Archive, and the U.S. Government Printing Office in August announced a collaborative project to conduct their own harvests of government Web sites. While we are extremely pleased that these institutions have stepped in to ensure the preservation of federal online government information, we also believe that NARA is shirking its own responsibility to conduct these agency harvests.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

Partners Join Together to Preserve Government Web Sites

August 19, 2008

Last week, the Library of Congress announced a collaborative project with the California Digital Library, the University of North Texas Libraries, the Internet Archive, and the U.S. Government Printing Office to provide permanent public access to and preserve public government web sites at the end of President Bush’s term in January 2009. According to the announcement, “This harvest is intended to document federal agencies’ online archive during the transition of government and to enhance the existing collections of the five partner institutions.” This exciting project will provide the American public with an important record of what the government looked like at this time.

While AALL is extremely pleased with this new collaboration and applauds these partner institutions, we continue to be disappointed that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will not conduct its own web harvests of federal agency web sites at the end of this presidential administration. As we wrote in the April Edition of the Washington E-Bulletin, NARA released a memorandum to agencies in March indicating that it would not harvest these web sites as it had done in the past, pointing to agencies’ responsibility to preserve their electronic records under the Federal Records Act. However, as we noted at the time, the preservation of records is not the same as a capture of agency web sites, since the latter provides the public with an image and understanding of the government during a specific period of time.

In April, AALL signed on to a letter to Allen Weinstein, the Archivist of the United States, urging him to rescind the decision and continue NARA’s web harvesting program. Unfortunately, NARA’s decision stands, making the new collaboration between the Library of Congress, the California Digital Library, the University of North Texas Libraries, the Internet Archive, and the U.S. Government Printing Office essential to providing permanent public access to and preserving the federal government’s digital information. We thank all of the partners for their strong commitment to digital preservation.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

Senate Subcommittee Holds Oversight Hearing of the National Archives

May 16, 2008

On Wednesday, May 14, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security held an oversight hearing of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The hearing focused on NARA’s electronic records management system and the preservation of executive branch electronic records, including White House emails.

The hearing featured two panels, the first of which included testimony from Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, NARA; Linda Koontz, Director, Information and Management Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office; and Paul Brachfeld, Inspector General, NARA. Brachfeld’s testimony provided a harsh critique of NARA’s Electronic Records Archives (ERA), and its plans to manage electronic White House Presidential Records.

The second panel included testimony from Patrice McDermott, Director, OpenTheGovernment.org; Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive and co-chair of OpenTheGovernment.org; Dr. Jim Henderson, Former State Archivist, State of Maine; and Dr. Martin Sherwin, Professor of History, George Mason University.

AALL is following many of the issues addressed by Dr. McDermott in her testimony. For example, Dr. McDermott discussed NARA’s role as the site of new public access initiatives, including the Office of Government Information Services mandated by the OPEN Government Act (see the January Edition of the AALL’s Washington E-Bulletin). NARA is also designated as the “Executive Agent” responsible for implementing the White House’s new Designation and Sharing of Controlled Unclassified Information (see our previous blog post). Dr. McDermott also addressed NARA’s electronic records management responsibilities and NARA’s decision to stop taking snapshots of federal agency websites (see the April Edition of the Washington E-Bulletin).

In addition, Dr. McDermott’s testimony addressed NARA’s efforts to increase access to digital records by entering into partnerships with private sector entities to digitize historical holdings. Dr. Weinstein also addressed these partnerships in his testimony. This was a timely discussion, because late last week NARA released its new Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2007-2016, building on its former strategic plans and addressing some of the input NARA received from stakeholders, including AALL. This new document outlines NARA’s approach to digitization projects and includes NARA’s “Principles for Partnerships to Digitize Archival Materials.” We are pleased that the document addresses some of the issues AALL pointed out in the comments we submitted last November, including that free access to digitized materials be available in a timely fashion. In addition, we commend NARA for its commitment to issue calls for comments on proposed partnerships. NARA also published a list of the types of comments they received during the public comment period.

Wednesday’s hearing, the Subcommittee’s first NARA oversight hearing in more than three years, was an important look at NARA’s efforts to manage information in the digital age. We thank the Subcommittee for holding the hearing and hope that the increased oversight and attention will lead to a stronger National Archives.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

White House Issues Memo on New Controlled Unclassified Information Policy

May 14, 2008

Last Friday, the White House issued a memorandum on new rules governing the designation and sharing of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). The memo creates a uniform standard for information that previously fell under the broad category of Sensitive But Unclassified information (SBU).

The CUI framework is intended to ease information sharing in the government and rein in the various control markings used by agencies, such as “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), “Official Use Only” (OUO), and “Limited Official Use” (LOU). Under the CUI framework, all CUI information is categorized into one of three combinations of safeguarding procedures and dissemination controls. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is named as the “Executive Agent,” responsible for overseeing and managing implementation of this CUI Framework and prescribing any additional CUI markings.

The memo addresses the important problem of the alphabet soup of Sensitive But Unclassified designations, but many questions remain. Steven Aftergood, author of Secrecy News and Director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, expresses his concerns in his blog. He writes, “Which, if any, of the more than 100 existing control categories will be canceled, rather than absorbed into the new CUI category? The new policy does not say. At what point, if any, does the CUI designation expire? There’s no way to tell. What enforcement mechanisms are established to ensure compliance with the new policy? To be determined.”

On April 11, AALL signed onto a letter to the White House asking for a public review of proposed new rules governing the designation of Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) information. Unfortunately, no public review occurred before the White House issued this memo. For background on our letter, see our previous blog post, “AALL and Others Urge Public Comment on Guidance for Sensitive But Unclassified Information.”

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

House Hearing on Executive Branch Electronic Communications Preservation

April 23, 2008

The House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives will hold a hearing today to address the Electronic Communications Preservation Act (H.R. 5811), sponsored by Chairman of the Committee Henry Waxman (D-CA-30), Chairman of the Subcommittee Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO-1), and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH-2). The bill directs the Archivist of the United States to establish standards for the capture, management, retrieval, and preservation of White House e-mails and other electronic communications. The Committee’s Press Release, summary of the bill, and full text of the bill is available here.

Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, will testify about the state of the preservation of electronic records and the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) oversight responsibilities. OpenTheGovernment.org recently assisted Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) with data collection for their new report, “Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government.” Findings of the report include: federal agencies are not keeping up with modern electronic records management methods; there is widespread confusion among federal employees about their obligations regarding record keeping; and there is a lack of meaningful oversight of the agencies by NARA.

This hearing was originally scheduled for April 16, but canceled at the last minute. Assuming the witness list stays the same, the witnesses will include:

The Honorable Allen Weinstein
Archivist of the United States
National Archives and Records Administration

Dr. Anna K. Nelson
American University – Department of History

Witness to be announced
Government Accountability Office

Patrice McDermott

The hearing will take place at 2pm in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building. According to Committee staff, a live webcast should be available on the Committee website.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

Supreme Court to Release Same-Day Audio Recording

March 7, 2008

The Supreme Court announced this week that it will release a same-day audio recording of oral argument in District of Columbia v. Heller, a case challenging D.C.’s gun law. The case is scheduled at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 18, 2008. The audio recording will be released to the public shortly after the conclusion of the argument through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Supreme Court occasionally releases same-day recordings of high-profile cases.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

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