FBI cleans up its e-recordkeeping

Certification program underscores new focus on records

DOD 5015.2-STD: Design Criteria Standard for Electronic Records Management Software Applications

The FBI says it has made significant progress in organizing its electronic records after misplacing documents related to the Oklahoma City bombing case and mismanaging records about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The National Archives and Records Administration recently recognized the FBI's progress with an Archivist Achievement Award for the bureau's electronic recordkeeping certification program. That program established recordkeeping standards for all the FBI's e-records systems and created protocols for testing those systems following the mishandling of documents about Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

But some public-access proponents who regularly request FBI records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are still critical of the FBI's recordkeeping. They say that older paper records and records from aging electronic systems remain inaccessible.

FBI records managers say the certification program is separate from the bureau's public-access activities.

"The electronic recordkeeping certification process is intended to ensure that we properly identify and protect our electronic records," said Bette Fugitt, FBI unit chief for records management applications. "It is not a decision-making system for information access issues."

In keeping with NARA's recommendations, the bureau has formalized communication between records officers and the information technology specialists who build new recordkeeping systems, said Michael Miller, chief of the FBI's Records Automation Section. Records management officials are represented on the FBI's system design and technical approval boards. And IT specialists create recordkeeping features when they begin developing new systems.

"It's cheaper and easier to do that than it is to fix a system that is already well down the road," Miller said.

Under the FBI's e-records certification program, systems that handle federal records must be certified and accredited under Defense Department 5015.2-STD, a standard for e-records management software that DOD developed and other agencies and organizations have adopted.

In addition to the certification program, FBI officials have taken other steps to preserve the bureau's e-records and make them accessible. Records managers have given IT specialists dictionaries that define the words archivists use. In addition, FBI officials hired consultants from SRA International to write a manual detailing the process of incorporating recordkeeping rules into the life cycle management of electronic information systems and posted it on the bureau's intranet.

The FBI is also expanding its e-records management workforce. This year, it has authority to hire six new employees. Two recent hires are former records officers from the Executive Office of the President and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A major recordkeeping challenge for the bureau is finding the right employees and completing the required background checks.

"It can take up to four months to bring on an employee after the initial, 'Yes, we want you,' " Miller said.

Another milestone in the FBI's efforts to improve access to records was reached this year when its chief information officer added e-recordkeeping systems to enterprise architecture plans that guide the bureau's IT spending. Although the bureau spent much time developing the manual and enterprise architecture documents, Miller said, "getting those documents in place makes our life much easier."

The biggest test of the FBI's ability to manage e-records will be Sentinel, the bureau's new case management system. Sentinel replaces the failed Virtual Case File management system, which cost the bureau $170 million. Miller said records officers meet weekly with Sentinel staff to ensure that the system will meet the bureau's new recordkeeping standards.

Outside the bureau, however, some open-government proponents say the results of the FBI's recordkeeping improvements remain largely invisible. "It's great that they have gotten their electronic records system under control," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive, a research institute and library at George Washington University.

"I still think they need to come up with a way to handle those records that haven't been captured by" the new recordkeeping systems, she said. The archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through FOIA requests.

David Colapinto, director of nuclear litigation and general counsel at the Forensic Justice Project at the National Whistleblower Center, says the recent recordkeeping changes at the FBI have not made much difference in the way the bureau treats citizens who make FOIA requests.

"There is still an inexplicable backlog and delay in the way they get information to the public," Colapinto said. "You're talking about years." Obtaining court orders is often the only way to speed the process, he added.

Jesse Trentadue, a Salt Lake City attorney who has sued the bureau, also has serious concerns about the future accessibility of FBI records systems. He said FBI officials skew their e-records systems to hide embarrassing information or exculpatory evidence.

Trentadue said he discovered system errors while making FOIA requests for e-records to prove that his brother was killed in a jail cell because he was mistaken for an alleged accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. His family believes Kenneth Trentadue might have been a victim of mistaken identity. The family alleges that the brother could have been strangled to death in an effort to obtain a confession. The death was ruled a suicide.

Today, court documents show the FBI's IT systems failed to retrieve Trentadue's FOIA requests.

FBI adopts DOD 5015.2-STD playbook

To get its recordkeeping house in order, the FBI has adopted a standard for electronic records management software known as Defense Department 5015.2-STD.

The standard specifies, for example, that an e-recordkeeping system will:

  • Correctly process dates in current, previous and future centuries.
  • Allow only authorized individuals to create, edit and delete official records information.
  • Provide features for sorting, viewing, saving and printing user-selected portions of official records information.

Source: Defense Department 5015.2-STD

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