‘My first two years: access issues at the National Archives’
Editor's note: This text reflects minor editing changes of the speech as delivered.
I want to thank the First Amendment Center for inviting me to speak today at this ninth annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference.
Before I discuss some major efforts on NARA’s [the National Archives and Records Administration’s] part to improve access to government documents since I became Archivist of the United States two years ago, I want to take note of some recent developments in policy and mood which offer encouragement to those committed — as we are at the National Archives — to maximizing timely access to records government-wide. For one thing, with the current House debate over the existing Executive Order 13233 and related issues has come a significant measure of public and media dialogue over administrating presidential records, discussion which strikes at least this observer as fundamentally healthy. Just a few days ago, for example, although threatening to veto H.R. 1255 (Presidential Records Act amendments of 2007) if Congress passed it, the Bush administration pronounced the administration “otherwise willing to work with interested parties to strike a meaningful balance of competing interests.”
Nor has adequate attention been paid to another post-election phenomenon, the expressions of general support (whatever the difficulties in implementation) of calls for increased “bipartisanship” in government policymaking, which have come from the new congressional leadership — I have in mind Speaker [of the House Nancy] Pelosi’s and [Senate] Majority Leader [Harry] Reid’s comments in this regard as well as statements by President Bush. I welcome them all, and although I am under no illusion that a measure of benign rhetoric will lead inexorably to policy agreement, often it is an essential precondition for such agreements. Will a “Washington spring” of 2007 surprisingly join previous moments of unexpected cross-party cooperation? Don’t rule it out — yet. At this early moment in the new Congress, but with the 2008 election pot already bubbling, let us simply acknowledge the possibility of such cooperation, however unlikely. Take the recently passed House legislation:
- H.R. 985 (passed 331-95) — would expand protections for government whistle blowers;
- H.R. 1254 (passed 390-34) — would require donors of presidential libraries to be publicly identified;
- H.R. 1255 (passed 333-93) — would revoke the 2001 Bush executive order [that made it easier for presidents to shield their records]; and
- H.R. 1309 (passed 308-117) — would compel government agencies to be more responsive to the FOIA requests filed each year.
I’m especially pleased to be with you today to commemorate the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Freedom of Information Act on its “Day” during this special “Sunshine Week.” When I sued (with help from the ACLU) and won (against the FBI) in 1975 the first FOIA lawsuit for files of historical interest, few at the time could have predicted the vast and complex influence of the Freedom of Information Act on American economics, politics and society. That statute has become, with all of its flaws and unanticipated usages, a cornerstone of access to government records and, as such, pivotal in maintaining a robust democracy.
Like many other historians and countless other researchers, my research has benefited over the years from the greater openness of records that FOIA has encouraged through formal requests, appeals where necessary, and even lawsuits when other remedies fail. FOIA’s very existence has often constituted an effective weapon in prying documents loose from reluctant government agencies — including the National Archives.
Turning to NARA: I have now served as Archivist of the United States for two years and bring you a brief interim report on this process as it applies to today’s topic. First, as always, follow the funding. Despite the generosity of the President’s 2008 budget for NARA, we need additional resources if we are to fulfill our mission. But even with available funds, there has been visible progress on a number of our strategic goals in the past two years, goals linked to NARA’s newly-adopted ten year strategic plan:
- We are making steady progress toward an electronic records archives (ERA) that will ensure preservation of, and access to, today’s electronic records far into the future.
- We are working closely with the intelligence community and other key agencies to ensure that we can build a national declassification initiative to transform the way documents are reviewed and released.
- We are working with the private sector in partnerships to digitize key collections, to ensure the widest possible access for the American public and to build a learning center at the National Archives in Washington that will parallel the wonderful learning labs that we have across the country, among a number of educational programs we have, using documents and designed to strengthen civic literacy.
- We have started an effort to replace the existing, inadequate military-personnel records center in St. Louis with a facility that will provide critical improvements to the environmental-storage conditions for the two million cubic feet of records we store for the military. The new facility will enable us to ensure the preservation of essential military-personnel files so they will be there when they are needed by our country’s veterans to guarantee their rights and entitlements.
- We are completing the planning to bring the privately held Nixon library and museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., into the family of federal presidential libraries.
- We are working with the White House to organize a smooth transfer of the textual and digital records of the current administration to the National Archives and to plan for the George W. Bush presidential library.
On these and other responsibilities, NARA employees are focused and motivated. We approach these obligations in an integrated and coordinated way, as a national organization with 36 facilities in 20 states and the District of Columbia, responding to literally millions of requests each year from the executive branch, the Congress, the courts and from the citizens who own these records.
The mission we keep foremost in our minds at NARA is creating access to, encouraging the use of, and the distribution of records at all 36 locations in 17 states and the District of Columbia. This includes our Washington D.C. area operations, the St. Louis personnel records centers, the regional archives and the presidential libraries.
It is this commitment to accessibility that has been the dominant theme of our strategic planning for the next decade. Our Strategic Plan states, in part: “We will preserve and process records to ensure access by the public as soon as legally possible,” and “we will provide prompt, easy, and secure access to our holdings anywhere, anytime.” We mean it.
In the past year or two, we have released a wide variety of records, both in response to FOIA and as a result of systematic reviews. To name only a few:
- the files of Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito;
- the post-presidential papers of Dwight Eisenhower;
- the personal papers of Rose Kennedy;
- 60 more hours of Lyndon Johnson’s phone conversations;
- National Security Council files from the Ford administration;
- domestic-policy papers from the Clinton White House;
- portions of files from independent counsels from Iran/Contra and Whitewater; and
- the official and confidential files of J. Edgar Hoover.
Since my stint as Archivist of the United States began two years ago, NARA has worked on several fronts to make many more records accessible and to provide that access in a more timely and convenient way for our customers.
We are working in seven key areas that demonstrate NARA’s unshakeable commitment to providing access to the nation’s important records in a timely, competent, and courteous manner.
First, let’s look at FOIA requests. In the fiscal year that ended last September, FY 2006, the National Archives improved its performance rate in responding to FOIA requests — still not where it should be, but better.
We completed more than 80% of FOIA requests for executive branch agency records within 20 working days. The on-time rate of 83.89%, while under our target goal, was nonetheless six percentage points above the year-before rate of 77.41%. And nearly three-quarters of all FOIA requests were completed in 10 working days — half the time the law requires.
There are, of course, some very real reasons why NARA’s fulfillment of FOIA requests can take longer than the law prescribes:
Overall, there are fewer individuals at NARA processing FOIA requests because more staff has been reassigned to reducing the backlog of classified documents that still need review before they can be made accessible. However, we believe the benefits of eventually eliminating the backlog outweigh the current (and we hope temporary) setbacks in FOIA service.
FOIA requests, of course, must be seen in context. The 9,685 requests we received last year represent less than 1% of the 1.6 million public-access requests at NARA facilities nationwide. But they are important because generally they are for military-personnel files, classified documents or presidential records — all of which are of great interest to US.
Our second key area of activity, declassifying documents and returning them to the open shelves, has been a special concern this past year.
Executive Order 12958, as amended, set Dec. 31, 2006, as the deadline for automatic declassification of classified records more than 25 years old. Since the order went into effect in 1995, more than 460 million pages of federal records have been declassified and released at NARA, with about 400 million pages to go as of the deadline date.
In the last year, the presidential libraries met the mandate of Executive Order 12958, as amended, by referring all remaining 25-year-old classified presidential documents for agency review and decision. The way in which the libraries achieved this was primarily through the Remote Archives Capture Project. To date, the libraries from Truman through Carter have scanned 3,645,308 pages. The libraries also continue to make progress on declassification through the systematic and mandatory declassification review processes. In FY 2006, the libraries completed a systematic declassification review of 252,472 pages, resulting in the release of 101,093 pages.
To speed this process along, NARA established an interagency referral center in 2005, and since then staff has concentrated on preparing records for review by their originating agencies. Now, with agencies returning decisions, staff is beginning to process records for release in the open shelves.
Among the first records to be released are State Department records on Central America and Army records on the Vietnam War.
The declassification issue, however, has a larger dimension. Last summer, I announced the launch of a National Declassification Initiative, or NDI, to build on the success of our referral center. The purpose of the NDI is to more closely coordinate the declassification activities of the federal government, to improve the quality of the reviews, and to release the maximum amount of information in the shortest possible time. We want to ensure that agencies are not over-referring or withholding information that fails to meet the standards for continued classification. For presidential records, the Remote Archives Capture Project will continue to make progress addressing the declassification of Reagan presidential records.
Third, we have also taken steps to deal with a tremendous backlog of textual records that have not been fully processed — some one million cubic feet of documents of all kinds.
These documents have not yet been described well enough to enable efficient access to them. We’re seeking to describe all records series to the appropriate level to ensure the description is adequate enough for access by professionals and others who do research here at the National Archives.
We have assigned dozens of staff members to work on this processing initiative full time, and we’re making steady progress.
Fourth, providing wider access to the billions of pages of textual records already in the National Archives nationwide will be another challenge, and that is where our digitizing projects will come in.
Toward this end, we have established major partnerships with private entities, and we are looking for others. Last year, we announced a partnership between the Kennedy Library and the EMC Corporation of suburban Boston to digitize the entire collection of papers, documents, photographs and audio recordings of President Kennedy and make them accessible via the Internet.
We also entered into an agreement with Google for a pilot program to make some of the National Archives’ audiovisual holdings available online. Today, you can go to the Google site and see a collection of NARA’s rare and historical films.
More recently, we entered into a partnership with Footnote Inc. to digitize millions of records. Footnote is a subscription-based Web service that features searchable original documents. So far, Footnote has digitized more than five million pages that are now available on its Web site. After five years, everything that Footnote has digitized will be available at no charge through NARA’s Web site. In the meantime, researchers can come to any National Archives research room around the country and access this material through our computers free of charge.
We are also working to develop our own capability to digitize and make available — electronically via the Internet — collections of traditional paper records. And we are looking for additional partners to help us digitize records to broaden their accessibility.
Fifth, we are working with a consortium of search engine operators to help them gain access to two major databases we now operate and add to all the time:
At the moment, these search engine crawlers are not able to access the tens of millions of documents in AAD and ARC — thus making it difficult for researchers to discover valuable databases they would find useful. Having them open to the Internet’s major search engines will vastly increase the access of researchers to NARA and make our holdings much more useful to the public.
Sixth, there will be greater access coming to another collection of records in which there is great interest: the records of Richard M. Nixon.
Later this year, NARA will officially take over the private Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., and operate it as part of NARA’s presidential library system. We will then begin bringing together all the records of Richard M. Nixon’s life — public, political and private — from his youth through his post-presidency.
This will include records that had been held by the Nixon Foundation in the privately-run library as well as Nixon records that have been housed in College Park and other NARA locations since President Nixon left office in 1974.
Finally, so far, I’ve talked about what we’re doing in the here and now about maintaining and improving access to public records. But real widespread access will come with the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA. When completed, ERA will allow anyone, anywhere, at anytime to access through the Internet the important records of the U.S. Government — all those records I’ve been talking about until now.
The ERA will be our “archives of the future,” or “archives without walls.”
The first increment of ERA is scheduled to go into operation this fall, by ingesting records from four federal agencies: the Patent and Trademark Office, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Naval Meteorological and Oceanography Command, and the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Succeeding increments will follow in subsequent years.
Eventually, ERA will provide electronic access to the electronic records of today’s and tomorrow’s government and the important digitized traditional records that we now hold. And, eventually, ERA will preserve all kinds of records in addition to textual records, such as e-mails, Web pages, digital images, videotapes, maps, spreadsheets, presentations, audio files, charts, drawings, databases, satellite imagery, geographic information systems and more.
ERA will allow researchers in the future to access records now in the archives and those being created electronically — regardless of the software and hardware used to create them or the kinds available in the future when access is desired.
I have dwelt largely on the positive elements in my experiences over the past two years, on strengthening access rather than on the problems and issues that remain for resolution. A word on these, beginning with resources: Although considering the increase in the president’s budget for NARA in FY2008, we remain deeply grateful for continued White House support. If called to question by a member of Congress or the president or a member of this audience and asked what was most needed, I would probably respond as one-time A.F. of L. leader Samuel Gompers did when asked at a congressional hearing what the goal of the labor movement was. He reportedly responded that he could sum it up in one word: “MORE.”
Equally important to successful management of the National Archives, in my view, is the intangible quality of civility and bipartisan support which we certainly have enjoyed in our dealings with Congress and with the White House since I became Archivist of the United States. I remain grateful to those who governed Congess then — from both parties — those who govern it now — from both parties — and to President Bush and to all those from both parties now seeking that office. It is a privilege to lead the guardians of America’s documentary heritage as we stand watch over our responsibilities in protecting not only the Charters of Freedom but the remaining nine billion plus text items and millions of audio-visual materials that comprise — a growing amount of it in electronic form — the “stuff” of this country’s past and current legacy. Our entire staff is privileged to share this responsibility.
Make no mistake about it, at the National Archives, we are in the access business. We stand ready to provide access to all those who come: the scholar researching a book, the veteran seeking information to claim entitled benefits, the genealogist researching for family history, the reporter working on a current news story, the victim of a natural disaster trying to reassemble a life, and the individual citizen interested in the history of this country.
We believe that full access to the records that spell out our rights, chronicle the actions of our government officials and record our national experience provides the transparency needed for a healthy and vital democracy such as ours.
In his 1998 book, Secrecy, the late scholar-statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan exposed the folly of secrecy, much of which remains from the Cold War. “It is time,” he wrote, “to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us.” At NARA, and I can speak only for what I know, we are moving with all deliberate speed into the world of openness urged by Sen. Moynihan.
But that era of openness needs a citizenry that appreciates the value of not only the access they have to these records but also the power these records can have to change their lives.
To foster a greater awareness of public records and their usefulness, we are expanding our programs aimed at lifting the level of civic literacy by educating our citizens about the records we hold. In many of these instances, we are fortunate to have the help of private sector partners.
In the new Boeing Learning Center in our Washington headquarters and in our facilities around the country, we work with schools, teachers, and students to demonstrate the value of teaching and learning with original, historic documents.
The message that underscores these efforts is simple: History can be made more meaningful if it involves the actual documents that made history and changed the course of the American experience. We deliver this message through our museum, public outreach, communications, and education programs, such as National History Day and federal Teaching American History grants.
In conclusion, in the coming year, we will not waver in our commitment to ensuring that Americans and citizens of the world will continue to find the records they need in the National Archives of the United States. And we will strengthen our efforts to respond to FOIA requests in as timely and as completely a manner as possible.
It is our obligation to citizens and to future generations to keep our democracy open, transparent and accountable.
Harry S. Truman, a person of uncommon wisdom dispensed with uncomplicated brevity, observed simply that “Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.”
I congratulate the First Amendment Center on this thoughtful observance of the anniversary of the law that has become so important to our democracy.