Electronic Records Archives & 9/11 Commission Records Update

The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) met on November 21, 2008, to discuss the declassification, archival processing and release of the 9/11 Commission records, and the National Archives and Records Administration’s Electronic Records Archives (ERA).

This is the latest in a continuing series of meetings the PIDB is holding as a follow-up to the Board’s report to the President, titled Improving Declassification.

Ken Thibodeau, Director of NARA’s Electronic Records Archive (ERA), provided a status report on the project. The initial implementation phase of the ERA began last June and Thibodeau reported they system had been working well. Four federal agencies are currently using the system. This initial phase will continue until June 2009. From that date until February 2010, additional agencies will be brought into the system at the invitation of NARA. From February until December 2010, agencies that volunteer and meet certain criteria will be added to the ERA system. Finally, beginning in January 2011, all remaining federal agencies will be using the ERA.

Thibodeau went on to provide an update on the upcoming transfer of the electronic records from the Bush administration to the National Archives on January 20, 2009. A separate system, known as the Executive Office of the President (EOP) ERA, is being developed to ingest the Bush administration’s electronic records. Thibodeau estimated that 100 terabytes of electronic records would be transferred to NARA. He said that the White House staff had been fully cooperative, but that negotiations were on-going with regard to the technical details of the transfer.

A contingency plan had been developed earlier in November should NARA’s existing systems be unable to ingest the vast amount of electronic records being transferred by the Bush administration.

Michael Kurtz, Assistant Archivist for Records Services was the next to testify concerning the initial release of some of the 9/11 Commission’s records in January 2009. In August 2004, the 9/11 Commission transferred custody of 570 cubic feet of textual records to NARA with the expectation that the materials would be made publicly available, to the fullest extent possible, in January 2009.

Because some of the records contain current intelligence, highly classified information and sensitive privacy information, NARA decided to prioritize the processing of segments of the collection. NARA focused on the declassification of Memoranda for the Record (MFR) that contains summaries or hundreds of interviews and briefings conducted by the Commission staff. NARA also began reviewing and processing the unclassified records created by the Commission that widely reflects its work (e.g., team files, front office files and staff files). These series total approximately 160 cubic feet.

NARA referred the MFRs to the primary equity holders in May 2007. To date, the Departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and Central Intelligence Agency have completed their review and returned all of their primary referrals. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Defense have both reviewed, and returned, about half of the MFRs that were referred to them by NARA. The National Security Council, National Security Agency and Department of the Treasury have not returned any MFRs.

Including the unclassified MFRs, approximately 4,200 pages of the MFR collection will be released on January 14, 2009. Approximately 2,600 pages of MFRs are still pending.

After the January 2009 initial release, NARA will be addressing the declassification of the remaining 410 cubic feet of textual records of the 9/11 Commission. NARA is also addressing the technical and classification issues surrounding the Special Media Records collection that contains 1,700 audiovisual items. NARA must also preserve electronic records totaling approximately 1.3 terabytes such as hard drives, servers and e-mails. Prioritization of the remaining materials will be made after January 2009.

Kurtz also made a presentation concerning the pros and cons of the establishing a National Declassification Center within NARA, which was one of the recommendations of the PIDB’s report.