Clinton tapes face destruction

A proposal to get rid of Clinton-era backup tapes has drawn fire from some historians, but federal officials say all the data will be preserved.

According to a May 3 notice published in the Federal Register, the National Archives and Records Administration would discard 9,193 backup tapes containing duplicate versions of classified electronic records, mostly calendar data, for some staff members of the Clinton administration’s National Security Council.

The notice pertains to the data from a small number of NSC staffers and their secretaries, who continued to use older software known as Professional Office System, or PROFS, to maintain electronic calendars and call logs to schedule daily activities and appointments. A proprietary IBM office management tool, PROFS was used by a few NSC staff during the Clinton administration. It was not the council's main e-mail system, which NARA is retaining as a separate series.

The notice states that NARA will use other electronic media to store copies of the presidential records scheduled for disposal. It does not specify whether NARA will save the full set of copies in the same format or use another format that might not contain identical metadata, but NARA officials told Federal Computer Week that they will preserve all the data on the tapes.

Although the agency wants to get rid of physical tapes used for backups, the actual data will be preserved completely, said Nancy Smith, director of the presidential materials staff at NARA. That preservation will include calendar headings and all associated metadata, she said. "Additionally, all PROFS notes and documents contained on these backups -- applications only used for six months into the Clinton administration -- have been restored with metadata," Smith said.

NARA officials said they regret the confusion caused by the Federal Register notice. Historians have expressed concern that the wording left open the possibility of losing some of the data on the tapes.

"If they are doing a new set, then that is very risky," said Anna Kasten Nelson, a historian in residence at American University. She has experience with the Freedom of Information Act and has written about national security processes. "Various side comments or signatures may not be transferred.... They are very vague on this."

That incidental information could be revealing, Nelson said, citing as an example the importance of knowing who was informed of meetings and on what dates those meetings were held. The logs, for instance, might note that the national security adviser at the time, Sandy Berger, received a document at 9:05 a.m. and then sent it to the secretary of the State Department at 10:03 a.m.

"They tell us something about the way policy was made in that White House," Nelson said.

She added that the notice seems foggy on the subject content of the tapes and does not specify if calendar headings, such as "Berger to discuss Bosnia," are on the tapes.

Comments on the proposal are due by June 17. After NARA officials consider the feedback, they will issue a second notice constituting a final agency action if they decide to proceed with disposal.

"Someone should be writing an objection to this," said Scott Armstrong, a historian and frequent critic of NARA. "This is not material that should be destroyed. This is so poorly written."

Armstrong said the notice's wording makes it sound as though NARA will destroy the only versions of NSC’s classified records that are not among the small segment specifically designated by the NSC staff as of archival value and the few materials preserved under earlier litigation.

He is also concerned about losing all the metadata -- information that shows how, by whom and when the messages were created, edited, sent, received, forwarded, altered, replied to, copied, stored and retrieved.

"If the person in charge of arms control spent a large amount of time organizing a volleyball game, that would be of significance," Armstrong said. "It's hard to imagine what would not be of historical significance."

Electronic records reside on federal machines in the office, and NARA also creates tapes with periodic "snapshot" backups that capture data from the entire system at the end of a presidential administration. Those snapshots do not preserve information that Clinton era staffers chose to delete.

Historians have lost document preservation battles before. In 1995, the national archivist at the time, John Carlin, approved General Records Schedule 20, a records management plan that permitted federal agencies to delete electronic records if they made paper printouts for long-term storage. Although researchers warned that deleting the electronic copies meant erasing an important information trail, the disposal went forward anyway.

The current proposal would exclude the backup electronic records that Armstrong once successfully sued to preserve. The Federal Register notice states that NARA will keep all notes and other documentation related to backup tapes created between Jan. 20, 1993, and March 28, 1994. Those records went through a tape restoration project after Armstrong sued to preserve them.

In the early days of the nation, document writers kept careful notes and exchanged drafts, Armstrong said. Now people rely on e-mail and metadata for preliminary work and preserve only final versions of documents in many cases, he said.

"We have more complete records of the founding of the country than we do for the last 25 years," Armstrong said.

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