E-mail: Look before you delete

NASA's recent decision to automatically destroy all departmental electronic mail after 60 days — regardless of the digital message's significance — shows how little the government has progressed in setting a policy that will preserve electronic historical records for future Americans to study.

The issue of what to do with e-mails surfaced in 1989 when public-interest groups sued to prevent the destruction of electronic records from the Reagan and Bush administrations particularly those that pertained to the Iran-Contra affair.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Richey ruled that e-mail messages are official records and must be preserved. The National Archives and Records Administration has since issued rules directing government agencies to put into place policies and procedures to ensure that e-mail records are identified and preserved.

We agree with records experts who say NASA's policy seems to fly in the face of Richey's ruling and NARA's policy. And like many who learned about NASA's new policy after FCW contacted them we are perplexed about NASA's reasoning for destroying e-mail.

A NASA official said the agency doesn't use e-mails for official business. Then why spend taxpayers' money on it? A reasonable interpretation of NARA policy would require that agencies at least be required to make some sort of assessment as to whether any particular e-mail could be construed as a federal record.

A blanket policy which declares that all e-mail does not meet federal record status is unrealistic and short-sighted. A policy for storing electronic files should be a no-brainer.

As government moves forward in the digital age it will conduct more and more of its official business via electronic files. If as one NASA official wrote the government's policy is too difficult to interpret and to enforce then maybe NARA needs to look into the fate of electronic records at other agencies.

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