On August 8, 2022, word leaked to the press that the FBI had gone into Mar-A-Lago (residence of former President Trump) in search of federal records. While internet speculation bloomed about the political and legal implications, this federal records policy expert just shook her head. Total chaos is par for the course in federal records management.
What is a federal record? It’s not quite clear.
NASA lost track of the high-definition video from the 1969 moon landing for 36 years. Because there is no federal records policy definition for which copy of a file is the official one, the original magnetic data tapes containing the high-definition moon landing video were erased and re-used. In 2005, NASA retirees began asking why the grainy, fuzzy low-definition version of the moon landing was the only one anyone ever saw. NASA eventually found several copies of the high-definition video and restored them for the 40th anniversary of the moon landing in 1969.
How many records are there? Nobody knows.
When doing a 2015 project on declassification for the Department of the Navy’s Directives and Records Management Division, I was desperate for data on the number of classified records the Navy holds. Figuring that nobody works for free, I finally called over to the warehouse in Suitland, home of the Census Bureau, and asked for an itemized bill for Navy record storage. At the time, the Navy had exactly 78,241.14 boxes (yes, that’s the unit of measurement).
What’s in those boxes? You might be surprised.
Pity the brave souls who are responsible for reviewing classified documents to see if they’re ready to be declassified and released to the public. One of the Navy declassifiers I interviewed for that 2015 project told me about the biggest shock she’d ever received on the job. Every day a truck backs up to a building in Bethesda and boxes are handed to declassifiers tasked with reviewing whether the contents are ready to be revealed to the American people. She cracked open an untouched box of documents from the Vietnam War and discovered a live hand grenade nestled in the stack.
But what’s written in the federal records? It doesn’t really matter.
Two decades ago, the Navy Library had a set of records from the vetting of Vietnamese wives brought home by sailors in the 1960s and 1970s. These records were popular with genealogy enthusiasts, as they offered a useful window into a part of their ancestry that’s hard to research in English. According to Navy librarians, one day in the early 2000s, those records disappeared – confiscated by the U.S. Department of Energy on the suspicion that background checks on Vietnamese villagers might contain instructions for building a nuclear weapon.
What should be classified? That’s a good question.
In theory, the classification of every piece of government information is supposed to be lovingly described in an elaborate security classification guide written by an “original classification authority” duly authorized by the president. Some of these security classification guides haven’t been updated since the 1970s, most are vague, and quite a few contradict each other. In the 1950s, the amount of peanut butter consumed by the U.S. military was deemed classified.
Where are classified records found?
The law says that classified documents must be stored in a properly-secured, heavy-duty safe which can only be opened with a combination (or if the combination is lost, the kind of saw used to cut through concrete.) However, documents sometimes have to be carried from place to place by a courier; the courier must have the document in his physical possession everywhere he goes, even when it’s time to go. A colleague once found a highly-classified document neatly tucked behind the toilet paper holder in the men’s room in the Pentagon.
What’s the bottom line?
When federal records, particularly classified records, are printed out on paper, the handling of those documents quickly spirals out of control. Congress passed the Government Paperwork Elimination Act nearly a quarter-century ago, and the private sector has long since gone digital, but the federal government is still killing trees. Congressional funding for government digital transformation and information security efforts would significantly improve this challenge.