After resigning the presidency, Richard Nixon sought to retain personal control over his presidential records and to shield them from public view. Congress responded by enacting the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which provides that presidential records are the property of the United States. The PRA requires the president to “take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as Presidential records.”
The already formidable task of managing millions of presidential papers became far more complex with the introduction of electronic mail. In 1994, the Clinton administration instituted an automated records management system to archive the large volume of email messages generated by White House personnel, but due to technical malfunctions the system failed to retain a significant number of email files. Eventually, more than a million files were recovered, and by the time President Bush took office, an effective records management system was in place.
In 2002, the Bush administration decided to replace that system with one that proved both less reliable and less secure. A White House official acknowledged to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that “the process by which email was being collected and retained was primitive and the risk that data would be lost was high.” In addition, the official informed the committee that until mid-2005, the stored files were “accessible to everyone on the EOP [Executive Office of the President] network,” and he could not verify that email records had not been altered.
The new system led to the loss of millions of emails over an 18-month period from January 2003 to July 2005. An analysis by the White House found approximately 700 days on which one or more components of the EOP reported an unusually low number of emails. For 473 of those days, one or more components reported no emails at all. There were 12 days for which no emails generated by the president’s immediate office could be found, and 16 days without any emails generated by the office of the vice president.
In addition, over 80 senior White House officials, including senior adviser Karl Rove, routinely circumvented the archiving system altogether by conducting official business through their Republican National Committee email accounts. Most of these emails were not preserved, and congressional investigators found that little or no effort had been made to recover them.
The “loss” of millions of email messages leaves an enormous gap in the historical record of our times. It presents a serious obstacle to historians and ordinary citizens seeking to understand the course of events and the actions and motivations of those who participated in them.
For this reason, we asked 30 of the nation’s most eminent historians to join us in urging Congress to enact legislation to strengthen the Presidential Records Act. In a letter to House and Senate leaders, they argue that such reforms are essential to ensure that presidential records are preserved for posterity. Their call for reform has been endorsed by the three leading associations of U.S. historians: the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Coalition for History.
The House of Representations has already passed one measure that would begin to address the problem, although its prospects in the Senate are uncertain. The Electronic Communications Preservation Act, H.R. 5811, introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), would require the archivist to issue standards for preservation of electronic records and to report to Congress on whether agencies are complying with them. The bill also would require the archivist to establish electronic records management standards for presidential records, and to certify annually whether the controls established by the president meet the requirements.
H.R. 5811’s congressionally mandated standards and reporting requirements would be a step in the right direction. But the bill includes no real enforcement measures, and affords no remedy if the president fails to comply. The PRA cannot do its job if presidents are free to ignore it, and the preservation of the historical record is too important to be left to the sole discretion of the White House. The next Congress should consider ways to ensure that future presidents take seriously their duty to ensure that the nation’s history is preserved for future generations.