Friday, March 12, 2010

Freedom of Information: Worst open government performance - CIO Council cited for "lifetime failure"

President Richard Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods demonstrates the backwards-leaning stretch with which she erased eighteen-and-a-half minutes of a key Watergate conversation recorded on White House tapes.

National Security Archive cites CIO Council for "lifetime failure"
To address crisis in government e-mail preservation Disappearance of John Yoo e-mail shows CIOs missing in action; Latest debacle in two decades of red flags over saving official e-mail

Washington, DC, March 12, 2010
- The Rosemary Award for worst open government performance, named after President Nixon’s secretary who erased 18 ½ minutes of a crucial Watergate tape, this year goes to the Federal Chief Information Officers Council, the senior federal officials (responsible for $71 billion a year of IT purchases) who have never addressed the failure of the government to save its e-mail electronically, according to the citation today by the National Security Archive (

Formed by Executive Order in 1996 and codified in law by Congress in the 2002 E-Government Act, the CIO Council describes itself as the “principle interagency forum for improving practices in the design, modernization, use, operation, sharing, and performance of Federal Government information resources.” Yet neither the Council’s founding documents, its 2007-2009 strategic plan, its transition memo for the Obama administration, nor its current Web site even mention the challenge of electronic records management for e-mail.

Last month, the Justice Department investigation of former senior officials John Yoo and Jay Bybee over their authorship of the so-called “torture memos” revealed that “most of Yoo’s email records had been deleted and were not recoverable.” The Yoo deletions represent only the latest red flag about government e-mail preservation – dating back to the January 1989 attempt by the Reagan administration to destroy its e-mail backup tapes, thwarted by the National Security Archive’s lawsuit.

A 2008 survey by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and did not find a single federal agency policy that mandates an electronic record keeping system agency-wide. Congressional testimony in 2008 by the Government Accountability Office indicted the standard “print and file” approach by pointing out: “agencies recognize that devoting significant resources to creating paper records from electronic sources is not a viable long-term strategy”; yet GAO concluded even the “print and file” system was failing to capture the historic records “for about half of the senior officials” checked – John Yoo’s peers.

“The CIO Council has a bad case of attention deficit disorder when it comes to the e-mail disaster in the federal government,” commented Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive and author of a book on the e-mail lawsuit against the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. “We hope this year’s Rosemary Award will serve as a wake up call to the government officials who have the power, the money and the responsibility to save the e-mail sent in the course of the public’s business.”

The disaster of disappeared e-mail implicates almost every agency of the U.S. government, not only the Department of Justice which could not recover the Yoo e-mails. The National Archives and Records Administration also bears responsibility for coming up with the “print and file” approach to begin with, but NARA’s $400 million budget is miniscule compared to the annual IT spending of $71 billion over which the federal government’s CIO’s preside, so the CIO Council won the 2010 Rosemary Award based on the well-established Watergate principle of “follow the money.”

The only part of the federal government that seems to be facing up to the e-mail preservation challenge with any kind of “best practice” is the White House, where the Obama administration installed on day one an e-mail archiving system that preserves and manages even the President’s own Blackberry messages.

The National Security Archive brought the original White House e-mail lawsuit against President Reagan in early 1989, and continued the litigation against Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, until court orders compelled the White House to install the “ARMS” system to archive e-mail. The Archive sued the George W. Bush administration in 2007 after discovering that the Bush White House had junked the Clinton system without replacing the systematic archiving functions. CREW subsequently joined this suit and with the Archive negotiated a settlement with the Obama administration that included the recovery of as many as 22 million e-mails that were previously missing or mis-filed.

As a result of the two decades of the Archive’s White House e-mail litigation, several hundred thousand e-mails survive from the Reagan White House, nearly a half million from the George H.W. Bush White House, 32 million from the Clinton White House, and an estimated 220 million from the George W. Bush White House.

Previous recipients of the Rosemary Award include the FBI in 2009 (for having a record-setting rate of “no records” responses to FOIA requests), the Treasury Department in 2008 (for shredding FOIA requests and delaying responses for decades), the Air Force in 2007, and the Central Intelligence Agency in 2006. The Award is named after President Nixon’s long-time secretary Rose Mary Woods and the backwards-leaning stretch – answering the phone while keeping her foot on the pedal of a tape transcription machine – that she testified caused the erasure of an 18 ½ minute section of a key Watergate conversation on the White House tapes.

Source: National Security Archive

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