The scandal over Hillary Clinton’s email evasion, it’s now clear, goes way beyond Hillary Clinton. Take a look at the second paragraph of the New York Times’ front-page story on March 14, headlined “Emails Clinton Said Were Kept Could Be Lost”:
But the State Department disclosed on Friday that until last month it had no way of routinely preserving senior officials’ emails. Instead, the department relied on individual employees to decide if certain emails should be considered public records, and if so, to move them onto a special record-keeping server, or print them out and manually file them for preservation.
The Times story then returns to the saga of Clinton’s private email account, but the big, truly gasp-worthy story for the ages lies in those two sentences. The State Department is doing nothing to retain public records. Neither, others tell me, are the other federal bureaucracies. As a result, our history is vanishing into the ether. Major decisions—cataclysmic events—are happening all around us, but their causes may never be known.
In the old days, officials wrote or dictated memos to one another. Secretaries typed the memos on sheets of paper backed by two or three carbon sheets, then filed the carbons. Periodically, someone from the National Archives came by with a cart to haul the carbons away for posterity.
As a result, it’s now possible to write books about the Vietnam War, World War II, and many other events, large and small. Historians can go to the archives and read the memoranda between Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy (much of the Pentagon Papers consists of once-secret memos of this sort); they can read the letters between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, or the war plans of the Allied generals.
For the past two decades, such records have been kept only spottily, if at all. The problem is that the National Archives and Records Administration has been slow at setting rules and regulations for storing and filing digital records—and even slower at enforcing those rules.
The National Archives started the Electronic Records Archives in 2000, and funded pilot programs in 2008, but it didn’t start operating until 2012. Until that point, the National Archive had no way of dealing with Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, or emails with attachments. Even now, as the Times story indicates, the protocols and procedures aren’t fully in place. It’s still very much a work in progress; some aspects of the new program aren’t scheduled to go into effect until the end of next year.
An internal audit, written by National Archives officials in 2005 (declassified in 2009 and summarized here), concluded that electronic records were “generally not disposed of in accordance” with federal regulations and, in particular, that many emails were “being destroyed prematurely.” The authors found several reasons for this. First, some officials were writing emails on their personal computers. (Clinton wasn’t the first to do this, but she might have been the first to do so exclusively.) Second, “because electronic records are less tangible than paper records,” officials tended not to regard them as “records needing to be filed and retired properly.” Third, in many offices, the job of “records custodian” rotated frequently and was often left vacant for long periods, and when a replacement was found, no one notified National Archives officials so they could come train the new guardian. Finally, even though the volume of digital records had exploded in recent years, the number of records custodians had declined “substantially.”
Apparently, little has changed. One archivist tells me that no one has figured out how to store email attachments. Nor does the National Archives require departments to include explanatory text with PowerPoint presentations—a severe lapse, given that PowerPoint has long been the medium of choice for defense and intelligence agencies.
In short, history is still trickling through our fingertips. Many of the officials making history—not just Clinton—ignore their obligations to posterity, while the archivists, those charged with preserving this history, shrug their shoulders and let it vanish.
It’s a difficult task: Email is so evanescent; hard drives go up in smoke; there is no digital equivalent to carbon copies. Still, if the National Archives isn’t seen as trying hard to hang on to this treasure, why should anyone else bother?
My old college history professor, when asked about the wisdom of pursuing a career in his field, would shake his head and say, “There’s no future in history.” Today he could add, “In the future, there will be no history.”