Mid-Year Steering Share: Breaking the Silence

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post is from Daria Labinsky, an archivist at the National Archives in St. Louis, who works primarily with 20thcentury military personal data records. The Mid-Year Steering Share was developed to discuss projects currently active or recently completed, either personal or professional.

In my first Steering Share, I mentioned that one of my greatest concerns is the deliberate or accidental creation of archival silences by record creators and keepers. When I wrote that post, I did not foresee how relevant this concern would become. Tweets that may be federal records are being deleted, and White House staff may be using private email accounts and encryption/deletion software to conduct government business.

And it’s possible (probable?) that efforts to hide or destroy information concerning the operations and motives of the administration will only increase. As the group Concerned Archivists has pointed out in A Statement to the Archival Community, the president’s corporations destroyed emails in defiance of court orders before he was elected.

The Federal Records Act states, “Electronic messages created or received in a personal account meeting the definition of a Federal record must be forwarded to an official electronic messaging account within 20 days.”  Likewise, the Presidential Records Act, states that the president, vice president, or member of their immediate staff may not create or send a presidential or vice presidential record using a non-official electronic message account unless they copy it to an official account or resend it via an official account within 20 days.

Some of the president’s tweets on his personal account, but not all, have been retweeted on @POTUS, the official account.

tweets

As for the deleted tweets, under 44 U.S. Code § 2209 the president could argue that they are personal records of “purely private or nonpublic character which do not relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.”

Shontavia Johnson, professor of intellectual property law at Drake University, offers a well written and thorough dissection of the relevant issues in “Donald Trump’s tweets are now presidential records.” She closes with, “To create a full digital picture of Trump’s presidency, we may have to rely on the screenshots from private citizens or others.” Entities such as Pro Publica, whose Politwoops is capturing deleted tweets to the best of its ability, and the Internet Archive, which launched the Trump Archive to collect televised material, are among those answering her call. While these wouldn’t be federal records covered under the laws pertaining to them, they are admirable attempts to keep history from vanishing.

There are also efforts under way by public officials to fight potential historical silences. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced a bill to strengthen federal records laws. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Transparency Caucus, has emphasized the need to demand transparency from the presidential administration as well as from Congress.  Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) are investigating whether any laws were broken by administration staffers who were using the private email accounts.

It’s sad that any of this has to be dealt with in the first place, but it is refreshing that vigilance is not defined by party lines. The efforts of these and other people and organizations give me hope that we can turn the silence into noise.

The contents of this message are Daria’s personally and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Federal government or the National Archives and Records Administration.

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