The Clinton Emails and Proper Digital Records Storage

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Hilary Barlow about the the Clinton email scandal and government digital record storage. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

As Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, it’s worth remembering that her issues with email are part of the federal government’s checkered history with proper digital record storage. As Secretary of State, Clinton was not the first federal official to hide emails in a private server. In 2007, it came to light the Bush Administration officials did the same thing, with Karl Rove et al holding the bag. But Hillary Clinton’s emails shouldn’t just be a Republican talking point. Even if she isn’t the first, her blatant abuse of proper records practices, along with the inability or disinclination of others to sanction her actions, are a discouraging portent for the future of digital recordkeeping in the highest echelons of American government.

On July 5, FBI Director James Comey revealed that, while he found that Clinton had sent and received confidential information via her private email server, he was not recommending that she be indicted by the Department of Justice. On July 12, Attorney General Loretta Lynch backed Comey’s recommendation. Details about Clinton’s record-keeping practices were already troubling, more specifics have come to light.

It first became apparent that Clinton was using a private email account in March 2013, when a hacker accessed the email of her aide Sidney Blumenthal. The existence of the account received wider attention in the summer of 2014 when the House Select Committee on Benghazi realized that there were no official emails belonging to Clinton in State Department records. Since then, the emails have been a target for anti-Clinton Republicans and an election talking point.

Clinton turned over around 30,000 emails to the State Department in December 2014. Comey revealed on July 5 that many e-mails were lost in transfers from old to new servers, and that his team uncovered e-mails outside of the surrendered 30,000 that had either been lost in those transfers or deleted. Clinton has claimed the deleted emails were personal, which may be true, but since they were taken out of official recordkeeping channels completely history will never know for certain. The provenance of Clinton’s State Department emails is complicated to say the least and permanently so.

In March of 2015, the SAA issued a statement expressing concern at the use of non-governmental e-mails by government officials in general and Clinton in particular. The Council noted 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act “to prohibit the use of private email accounts by government officials unless they copy or forward any such emails into their government account within 20 days.”

Though the amendments were finalized after Clinton had completed her term as Secretary of State, there have been questions about whether Clinton violated the Act as it stood during her term, as well as the State Department Foreign Affairs Manual. Comey stated during a House Oversight Committee hearing that he believed Clinton had violated the Federal Records Act, at least “in some respects.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch went a step further than Comey, stating that the Federal Records Act was not under the purview of the investigation.

As President, Clinton would be expected to abide by the 2014 amendments to the Presidential Records Act. Similar to the Federal Records Act amendments, in which government officials are expected to use an official email and forward emails to official channels within 20 days if a personal account is used, the Presidential Records Act puts the burden of compliance is specifically on the President and Vice-President.

Comey noted in his statement to the press on July 5 that while Clinton would not be prosecuted, other individuals could face “security or administrative sanctions” in similar circumstances. The heavy implication is that low-level staff are likely to face consequences that higher-level officials can avoid. This sets a troubling precedent, not only for Clinton’s likely presidential administration, but for digital recordkeeping in the federal government overall. Alongside the Bush Administration email scandal in 2007, there is a bipartisan pattern of misplaced emails. Adding the complacency of both Comey and Lynch creates an overall picture of disregard for these issues.

What can we expect from Hillary Clinton’s administration and future administrations with regard to record-keeping and overall transparency? And no, I don’t think Donald Trump would be better on any of these issues. I shudder to even think of the information practices under his administration, but regardless of who is in the White House this case will set an important precedent. Ultimately, effective documentation thrives in an environment of clear standards, consistent application and a culture of accountability. This is a systemic issue bigger than Hillary Clinton, though her role as a major presidential contender and former Secretary of State should not be underestimated. The weak responses from Comey and Lynch are alarming because of the implications for the culture of accountability in the federal government surrounding these issues, and the pattern they set for future records practices.

One would hope that the 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act and President Records Act will spur Clinton and others to properly store records for posterity. Since Hillary Clinton has been dogged by the email issue throughout her campaign, perhaps her administration will be more attentive to digital records to avoid future scandal. Personally, I will be very interested in seeing how a Hillary Clinton administration will handle records.

Hilary Barlow earned her Master of Information degree in 2015 from the University of Toronto. She currently works as a Preservation & Digitization Technician at Penn State University.

National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Steve Duckworth and Steve Ammidown about the problem of records management and the ATF’s National Tracing Center. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

Let’s talk about guns. And records management. And maybe some advocacy.

According to their website, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is:

 a law enforcement agency … that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. [They] partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public [they] serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology.

That’s a big job. But as we’re about to see, “information sharing” and the “use of technology” are pretty restricted at the ATF.

The National Tracing Center (NTC) is the firearms tracing facility of the ATF. Located in Martinsburg, WV, they are the only facility in the United States that can provide information to law enforcement agencies (local, state, federal, and international) that can be used to trace firearms in criminal investigations, gun trafficking, and other movement of firearms, both domestically and internationally. And they are drowning in records. From recent reports, roughly 1.6 million records arrive at the facility each month. Records usually come from defunct firearms dealers who are required to submit their records when they go out of business. (For dealers still in business, the NTC contacts them after tracing a weapon through its manufacturer.) There appear to be no standards in place for how dealers have to keep or submit these records. There is a form (4473) for the actual gun purchase, but other records can come in on computer media or hand-written documents. They often arrive somewhat damaged, with partially shredded or water-damaged records being frequently cited in news reports. Some people even send theirs in on rolls of toilet paper.

As it is currently illegal to create a registry of firearms in the U.S., the idea of a searchable database is also off the table. This leaves workers at the facility with the task of sifting through these records manually to complete traces. Upwards of 365,000 traces are requested each year, and the number will just keep growing (due in part to the Obama administration’s requirement that every gun involved in a crime be traced). While records are now being digitized to provide some easier access and relief for the physical space needed, the records remain non-searchable and amount to a newer version of microfilmed records.

Some of the problems at the NTC can be traced to the lack of consistent leadership and chronic underfunding. The position of the agency director was unfilled from 2006 to 2013 due to legislation backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that requires Senate confirmation to fill the position. In 2013, acting director B. Todd Jones was narrowly confirmed to fill the Director role, but he retired soon after (in 2015) and the position has yet to be filled permanently. Stagnant funding has prevented the ATF from keeping up with demand. In addition to the overwhelmed workers at NTC, the agency has just over 600 inspectors dedicated to inspecting the record-keeping at over 140,000 gun dealers across the country.

The data collected by the NTC is also subject to the NRA’s legislative sway in Washington. As mentioned, they have been successful in heading off any attempts at creating a searchable database, arguing that such a mechanism would be a “registry” in violation of the Second Amendment. Taking it one step further, a set of provisions known as the “Tiahrt Amendments” has been attached to every U.S. Department of Justice appropriations bill since 2003, prohibiting the NTC from releasing information to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. The law effectively blocks this data from being used in academic research on criminal gun use or in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers. It also prevents the ATF from collecting the inventory information from gun dealers, which would further help identify lost or stolen guns. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argues that these amendments only empower criminals and reckless dealers.

Restrictive laws and a lack of quality management lead to a massive backlog of records and a very limited system of filling the great number of trace requests the NTC receives. The antiquated measures required by the NTC restrict law enforcement’s ability to perform their duties. While public opinion regarding gun sales seems to be turning (unlike Congress’s voting record), the idea of a database seems quite far off. An effective and permanent director at the ATF would be a good starting place, but as of this writing, a nomination doesn’t appear to even be in place (and given the upcoming election, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon).

Not unlike the rest of the gun debate, the political debate around the NTC and gun tracing data seems intractable and unlikely to change. Luckily for us, however, we’re archivists and records managers! We offer a unique perspective on this subject when we contact our elected officials on this topic. We’ve been in the dusty stacks (yes, we said it) and dealt with unwieldy access systems when time was of the essence. We should be arguing for the modernization and full funding of the NTC and the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments, at the least to improve access to government information and at the most to help save lives. So consider this your call to advocacy (as mentioned at the start). If you feel this situation warrants some action, take it and contact your legislators now!

 News/Links:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), https://www.atf.gov

Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Maintaining Records on Gun Sales,” http://smartgunlaws.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/gun-dealer-sales/maintaining-records-on-gun-sales/

National Tracing Center (NTC), https://www.atf.gov/firearms/national-tracing-center, (informational brochure: https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/national-tracing-center-information-industry-members-atf-p-331210/download)

National Tracing Center via Wikipedia (good general overview), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Tracing_Center

The White House, “Presidential Memorandum – Tracing of Firearms in Connection with Criminal Investigations,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/16/presidential-memorandum-tracing-firearms-connection-criminal-investigati

 News reports:

2016 March 24, America’s 1st Freedom [NRA magazine], “Where the ATF Scans Gun Sales Records,” https://www.americas1stfreedom.org/articles/2016/3/24/where-the-atf-scans-gun-sales-records/

2016 January 6, The Guardian, “Agency tasked with enforcing Obama’s gun control measures has been gutted,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/06/bureau-alcohol-tobacco-firearms-obama-gun-control-measures-funding-understaffing

2015 October 27, USA Today, “Millions of Firearms Records Languish at National Tracing Center” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/10/27/firearms-national-tracing-center-atf/74401060/

2015 March 20, USA Today, “ATF director announces resignation,” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/20/atf-director-b-todd-jones-resigns/25081713/

2013 June 11, Media Matters, “How the NRA Hinders the ATF Director Confirmation Process,” http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/06/11/how-the-nra-hinders-the-atf-director-confirmati/194412

2013 May 20, NPR, “The Low-Tech Way Guns Get Traced,” http://www.npr.org/2013/05/20/185530763/the-low-tech-way-guns-get-traced

2013 March 13, InformationWeek, “ATF’s Gun Tracing System is a Dud,” http://www.informationweek.com/applications/atfs-gun-tracing-system-is-a-dud/d/d-id/1109062

2013 February 19, WJLA ABC7 (Washington, D.C.), “ATF National Tracing Center Traces Guns the Old-Fashioned Way,” http://wjla.com/news/nation-world/atf-national-tracing-center-traces-guns-the-old-fashioned-way-85417 (YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lFdLaYcDNQ)

2013 January 30, CBS Evening News, “Tracing Guns is Low-tech Operation for ATF,” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/tracing-guns-is-low-tech-operation-for-atf/

2011 November 2, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Federal Law on Tiahrt Amendments,” http://smartgunlaws.org/federal-law-on-tiahrt-amendments/

2010 October 26, Washington Post, “ATF’s Oversight Limited in Face of Gun Lobby,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/25/AR2010102505823.html

Steve Duckworth is the Processing Archivist at the University of Florida where he wrangles and tames all sorts of archival collections. Previously, he has held roles with the National Park Service in Anchorage, AK and the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Project in Philadelphia, PA.

Steve Ammidown is the Manuscripts and Outreach Archivist for the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.