Rep. Henry A. Waxman, Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, and Rep. Paul W. Hodes released a new GAO report that finds that senior federal officials are failing to comply with requirements to preserve e-mail records. On Wednesday, the House is expected to consider legislation (H.R. 5811) to modernize the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act to ensure the preservation of these important federal records.
“Agency practices for preserving e-mails are antiquated and woefully inadequate,” said Rep. Waxman. “Serious deficiencies exist across government and in the White House, which frustrate accountability and deny historians an invaluable source for understanding the motivations and decisions of top government officials.”
“GAO’s recommendations within this report serve as further evidence of the need for Congress to pass H.R. 5811 to ensure improved e-mail oversight and management,” said Rep. Clay. “This legislation will prevent the destruction of important federal documents and preserve our nation’s rich history.”
“The Bush administration has been one of the most secretive in American history,” said Rep. Hodes. “Their unreliable record-keeping has prevented them from being held accountable to the American people. This bill will reform this Administration’s shoddy record-keeping and allow the American people to have confidence that future administrations will not be able to hide the truth from them or from history.”
The new GAO report, “Federal Records: National Archives and Selected Agencies Need to Strengthen E-Mail Management,” finds:
- All four of the agencies examined — the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Trade Commission — are relying on outdated and unreliable “print and file” systems for preserving e-mail records.
- Senior agency officials did not fully comply with key requirements for preserving e-mail records. GAO reviewed the practices of 15 senior agency officials in the four agencies and found that a majority of these officials failed to manage their e-mail records in accordance with regulatory requirements. E-mails were not retained in adequate recordkeeping systems, making the e-mail records easier to lose, harder to find, and vulnerable to deletion or other tampering. Inadequate oversight and training within agencies contributed to the inconsistent compliance with preservation requirements.
- In one instance, the use of a nongovernmental e-mail account by a former Acting Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency may have led to the loss of records concerning the agency’s response to the September 11 attack. According to GAO, the former Acting Administrator sent an e-mail to a private consultant instructing the consultant to use the Administrator’s personal e-mail account rather than the government account to discuss World Trade Center issues.
- The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has not aggressively exercised its oversight of agency e-mail policies. NARA has the authority to conduct inspections of agencies’ recordkeeping programs, but GAO found that it has not conducted any since 2000. Moreover, NARA has been reluctant to utilize a key accountability tool provided in the Federal Records Act: reporting agency problems to Congress.
- Agency e-mail preservation policies do not consistently meet the minimum regulatory requirements. HUD failed to implement three of eight e-mail records management requirements and incorrectly instructed its staff that only the sender is responsible for reviewing the record status of an e-mail. At EPA and FTC, agency officials were not instructed on preserving e-mail messages sent or received on private e-mail systems.
Rep. Waxman is the Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Rep. Clay is the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, the Census and National Archives. Rep. Hodes is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.