Feds ask court for relief on storing electronic docs

The government asked last week for a reprieve from a court order requiring federal agencies to account for their electronic records.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court, the Justice Department asked Judge Paul Friedman to "partially stay," or at least modify, an order that demands agencies start cataloging their electronic mail and word processing files Sept. 30. Because the National Archives and Records Administration has not told agencies how to go about this, the agencies would be forced to save all their files, causing their information systems to "shut down in the near future," government lawyers argued.

Year 2000 Competing for Fed Efforts

Agencies are so busy upgrading their computer systems for the Year 2000 that they "are not at present in the position to divert scarce attention and resources to coping with the effects of a 'no delete' rule," according to court papers. Backing up the files, rather than letting them collect on network servers, is not a viable option, the government said, because it would "impose substantial burdens of maintenance and huge costs" to retrieve and restore them later.

The motion is the latest maneuver in a case brought by Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group, charging that agencies have been illegally deleting their electronic records. The group won its case in October 1997, when Friedman voided the existing recordkeeping policy, called GRS 20, that let agencies destroy their digital files if they printed paper copies.

The government is appealing Friedman's ruling, with a hearing scheduled for Oct. 20. Meanwhile, Friedman gave NARA until the end of this month to devise a new recordkeeping policy. But on Sept. 21, Archivist John Carlin said his agency needs more time to vet its proposals with the Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies (see story at www.fcw.com).

Michael Tankersley, senior staff attorney for Public Citizen, said Sept. 25 that he thinks the government's argument is "utterly fanciful" because the people responsible for cataloging agency records and those who are working on the Year 2000 problem are not the same. "I don't think they have any excuse for having come in at this late date," Tankersley said, adding that he plans to oppose the government's motion.

The government has asked Friedman for a hearing this week. The government wants Friedman to let agencies follow their current recordkeeping practices, which could include printing out electronic records, until the appeals court rules on the larger case. Alternatively, the motion asks for a ruling that agencies can keep their existing recordkeeping plans until they develop new ones or until the appeals court rules and "NARA has provided further guidance."

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