Court asked to save feds' digital files

Plaintiffs suing the government over its failure to preserve electronic records went back to court last week, charging that agencies have ignored a judge's ruling that they must save their digital files.

In a motion filed Feb. 25 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen asked that agencies be ordered to stop following a National Archives and Records Administration policy that allows them to delete electronic files if they save paper copies. The policy, known as General Records Schedule (GRS) 20, was overturned last October by Judge Paul Friedman, but the government is appealing the decision.

Michael Tankersley, staff attorney for Public Citizen, said he requested the injunction because NARA officials are telling agencies the policy remains valid and have not moved quickly enough to put new rules into place.

Killing Relevant Docs

"Our concern right now is that hundreds of records have been destroyed," possibly including e-mail related to recent preparations for war against Iraq that "historians will never see," said Scott Armstrong, an independent researcher and party to the case.

Neither Armstrong nor Tankersley cited specific examples of electronic records that had been destroyed, but Tankersley referred to an Interior Department policy, which was posted on its World Wide Web site, that instructs employees to print out their e-mails and delete the originals, as evidence that agencies continue to subscribe to the policy.

Researchers, journalists and historians want electronic records preserved because the trails they leave concerning who reviewed a memo or who participated in a policy decision are easier to follow than on paper. Records management experts also say such documents can have important legal value now that agencies are using e-mail and the Web to do business with the general public.

Deputy archivist Lewis Bellardo said the Justice Department has ''informally'' advised his agency that ''GRS 20 remains in effect'' as long as the original case, Public Citizen v. Carlin, is under appeal.

He said NARA has told agencies unofficially that they no longer have to follow the policy, and that from now on they should plan to save program-related documents in their original digital formats. But, Bellardo acknowledged, ''We're not aware of agencies that have come up with alternatives at the present time.''

Late last year NARA convened a working group to devise a new electronic records management policy, but the panel is not scheduled to make its final recommendations until this fall. Meanwhile, Bellardo said, his agency is preparing temporary guidance that he hopes to issue ''within the next couple of weeks.''

In addition, he said, ''We're within a month'' of deciding whether Defense Department requirements for computer systems to automate the preservation of electronic records are appropriate for civilian agencies.

Friedman had not scheduled a hearing on Public Citizen's request at press time. If he grants the injunction, NARA will have to stop advising agencies that GRS 20 is still valid and will have to publish a Federal Register notice declaring the policy null and void.

Armstrong said the dispute could be settled out of court. ''We've already had conversations with the White House and upper levels of the Justice Department,'' he said. ''I think they are going to resolve this quickly.''

White House and DOJ officials could not be reached for comment.

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