Bush-whacking National Records

January 6, 2009

It’s that time again in the US with the countdown to a new President.  Edgar had posted an article on it and listening to Radio National this morning, there was a great discussion with a US archivist on the legislation requiring outgoing presidents and vice presidents to transfer their records to the National Archives.  Many of these records are in electronic form, particularly in the form of emails which makes their capture difficult as all records managers would know.

These records are incredibly important for future historians and scholars to look back at how policy was made, the reasoning behind judgements and the internal and stakeholder processes which occurred.  This is critical not just for identifying any errors that occurred, but also to help future policymakers and people in power to not repeat the mistakes of the past.  This is especially true for the Bush/Cheney period which has had more than its fair share of troubles.

Based on this article, there are legal and technical difficulties being encountered in recovering these records.  The technical ones are part and parcel of electronic mail systems, especially when trying to recover historical records, let alone the issues surrounding longevity and metadata capture as new email systems are developed.  A far greater proportion of the records would be electronic, due to its ease and simplicity of use.  But as things becoming simpler to use, they also are often harder for records managers and archivists.  It is often easier for a sender or a recipient of an email record to delete it after sending to remove that record from the mailbox.  It appears that previous presidents (and the current one) have not been fully forthcoming with their public records obligations with various lawsuits having occurred to ensure that the records get preserved.

The current Vice President has been particularly less forthcoming, attempting to limit the range of emails that are required to be preserved and shielding them from his personal emails.  Much of the reasoning and thinking behind the policy decisions that have occurred from past Presidents and Prime Ministers has emerged from their personal diaries and hence the personal records of people in high office should be preserved.  Note that these are shielded from publication for many years through legislation.

All this is somewhat bemusing given this recent New York Times article which states that Vice President Cheney believes that “historians would ultimately look favorably on the Bush administration’s efforts to keep the nation safe.”  How could historians properly do this when they have an abridged version of history preserved in the archives?