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National Archives publishes online dashboard of its investigations into lost, altered or destroyed public records

Sunlight Foundation: “To engage in a monumental understatement, it’s a big deal for the public’s information to be altered or disposed of without justified intention and public notice of the removal. In spring 2018, for the first time the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) has begun using the Internet to inform the American public about its ongoing investigations of unauthorized dispositions in an online dashboard. In a year that continues to be marked by regression on transparency and accountability under the Trump administration, this is a welcome development that shines a bright light on a matter of significant public concern and shows continued commitment by NARA to its open government plan. “For many years in the Performance Accountability Report, we have included a table of all open and closed cases by financial year, but it was available only as an end-of-the-year snapshot and not as a real-time, ongoing tool that we have now via the website,” Laurence Brewer, chief records office of the United States, informed Sunlight in an email. For those unfamiliar, “unauthorized disposition” refers to the unlawful or accidental removal, defacing, alteration or destruction of federal records under 44 USC 3106 and 36 CFR Part 1230. This section of the U.S. Code requires federal agencies are required to “notify the Archivist of any actual, impending, or threatened unlawful removal, defacing, alteration, corruption, deletion, erasure, or other destruction of records in the custody of the agency.” The Archivist and NARA staff constantly monitor the media, nonprofit watchdogs like Sunlight, and feedback from the general public for potential unauthorized dispositions. (You can contact NARA at [email protected] if you are aware of a potential records issue or want more information.) NARA’s Records Management Oversight and Reporting Program is responsible for establishing case files as it investigates allegations, including communications with a given agency until the issue is resolved. “Our goal is to close cases as quickly as we can, however, some cases are complex in nature or under litigation,” said Brewer. “NARA currently has fifteen cases that have been open 365 days or more.  NARA has been actively working on our older open cases. Since last year, we have closed thirteen cases that were open for a year or more.  NARA spends a considerable amount of time reviewing the background information on each legacy case and in some cases, restarting dialogue between NARA and the agency, which may include escalating to the Senior Agency Official for Records Management.” The new NARA dashboard, which is updated monthly, lists open and closed unauthorized dispositions, including open and closed letters for each, where they are available or — crucially — are permissible to disclose. NARA suggests that the public contact its Freedom of Information Act Office using a case ID. Once a given case is closed, NARA moves it to an  Unauthorized Dispositions Closed Cases page. A list of the cases that were open and/or closed prior to 2016 is available to the public online in past Performance Accountability Reports…”

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