Originally published by LA Times
Last month the National Archives found itself in the middle of a firestorm after it put a doctored photograph of the Women’s March on Washington on display. Even if the photo was not part of the National Archives’ own collection, the exhibit distorted history, and David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, soon apologized.
This was only the latest example — and hardly the most important — of a great and growing threat to our nation’s capacity to protect and learn from history. The press and the public have focused on the immediate, obvious problems, like this president’s exaggerated claims of executive privilege and national security to conceal information. But less appreciated is the fact that vital information is actually being deleted or destroyed, so that no one — neither the press and government watchdogs today, nor historians tomorrow — will have a chance to see it.
President Trump has long made it a practice to tear up his papers and throw them away. It is a clear violation of the Presidential Records Act, which is supposed to prevent another Watergate-style cover-up. When the National Archives sent staff members to tape these records together, the White House fired them.
In 2017, a normally routine document released by the archives, a records retention schedule, revealed that archivists had agreed that officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could delete or destroy documents detailing the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants. Tens of thousands of people posted critical comments, and dozens of senators and representatives objected. The National Archives made some changes to the plan, but last month it announced that ICE could go ahead and start destroying records from Mr. Trump’s first year, including detainees’ complaints about civil rights violations and shoddy medical care.
It’s not just ICE. The Department of the Interior and the National Archives have decided to delete files on endangered species, offshore drilling inspections and the safety of drinking water. The department even claimed that papers from a case where it mismanaged Native American land and assets — resulting in a multibillion-dollar legal settlement — would be of no interest to future historians (or anyone else).
Virtually all the papers of the under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment are also being designated as “temporary,” despite the incredibly broad responsibilities of that office — from international aviation safety to foreign takeovers of American firms.
It is hard to know why the government is not even holding on to records about antidumping efforts, or the protection of intellectual property, which fall under the new temporary status. It is perhaps easier to understand why the Trump administration wants to delete other records from the under secretary’s office, including documents regarding the enforcement (or non-enforcement) of “health, safety and environmental laws and regulations.” All this is good news for anyone interested in evading economic sanctions, buying American strategic assets, selling us shoddy goods, stealing our intellectual property or violating aviation safety regulations. Now, even the court of history will be closed.
All this is happening without so much as a congressional hearing — Congress has not called Mr. Ferriero to appear for almost five years, when he spoke about why the National Archives has been rated as one of “The Worst Places to Work in the Federal Government.”
Archivists have a tough job even when they are adequately supported. They somehow have to predict what records future historians will judge to be truly significant. But now the State Department is cutting archivists completely out of the process: Instead, it will start using machine learning algorithms to separate the “historic” from the “temporary.” Going forward, it is not even planning to turn these records over to the National Archives — a clear violation of the Federal Records Act. And so far there has been no public acknowledgment or discussion of this plan. When a group of concerned historians met with Archives senior staff members, they did not even seem to be aware of it.
In fairness, the National Archives’ own inspector general has repeatedly warned that its information-technology systems are antiquated and unreliable. Mr. Ferriero himself announced that in two years the Archives will no longer accept paper records — it simply doesn’t have any more room for them. Everything must be digital, or the departments and agencies must use their own resources to scan them.
The C.I.A. alone had an estimated 160 million pages of paper records as of the late 1990s, and since then it has released less than 10 percent — fewer and fewer every year. It has not even reviewed the vast majority of the holdings of the clandestine branch for public release, claiming they are exempt from normal declassification review. The agency has a long history of destroying records related to the overthrow of democratically elected governments, mind control experiments and torture. Once the National Archives closes the door, does anyone know what will become of all the other secret documents hidden in locked file cabinets at the Pentagon, the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency?
What is driving this mad rush to delete or destroy the historical record, rather than preserve it for future generations? It is not just the Trump administration. For more than a decade Congress has simply been unwilling to pay for such preservation. Since 1985, the volume of archived paper records has more than tripled. The number of data records has gone from fewer than 13 million to more than 21 billion. But the National Archives has fewer employees now than it did then. Adjusted for inflation, it has a smaller budget than it did a decade ago, and Congress has cut that budget every year for the last three years.
Is it any wonder that, according to a new policy announced last year, the National Archives does not plan to maintain any more presidential libraries? At the George W. Bush Library, the last of its kind, approximately 158 million pages of records await review. With the current staff, it is estimated it will take nearly 250 years.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt established the first presidential library almost 80 years ago — his own, in Hyde Park, N.Y. — he called it “an act of faith.”
He wrote: “To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things: It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgement in creating their own future.”
So what are we supposed to believe, when we no longer seem to have the capacity even to preserve a record of the past, much less learn anything from it? One thing is clear: When politicians, caught committing malfeasance, claim that they will let future historians judge, you can’t possibly believe them.