It could take Hillary Clinton's emails 30 years to reach the National Archives


Archiving federal records is no easy task. And preserving Hillary Clinton's emails for posterity will take decades, according to the National Archives, the final resting place for the correspondence at the center of the recent controversy.

In recent weeks, the Federal Records Act has received widespread attention following news that Clinton used a private email account to conduct official government business as secretary of State. The legislation, established in 1950 to provide guidance to federal agencies on record management, was amended last year by President Obama to include electronic records. But the National Archives can't guarantee that federal agencies are keeping records properly, and acquiring them takes considerable time.

"We started to change the way we think on how to manage email at federal agencies," Paul Wester, chief records officer at the National Archives told National Journal about the new record-management practices. "No more are we going to tolerate printing or filing emails in analog ways."

Agencies are legally required to manage their records and maintain a process for ensuring their preservation under National Archives statute 44 U.S.C. Chapter 31. The National Archives defers to federal agencies on categorizing records as temporary or permanent, but the record-keeping agency must sign off on the guidance the agencies use to do that. "Values that we're looking for include things like, does the body of records document high-level policy of the agency? It's a subjective activity," Wester said.

It usually takes 15 to 30 years for records to be transferred to the National Archives. "We want to have the records once [agencies'] activities are settled and are inactive," Wester said.

The challenge, however, is that most agencies don't have an automated way of preserving records, and instead file them manually. The State Department is one of those, inadvertently allowing emails to get lost in a cyber abyss. White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged State's thin records-management capacity on Monday.

"They did not have a system in place to automatically save the emails. There is some evidence to indicate that at least some State Department employees were routinely saving their emails," he told reporters, adding that the department is working to improve the process.

The National Archives has been recording government business since its founding in 1934. Records include photographs, census documents, and—perhaps most important now, in the digital age—email correspondence. On average, only 3 percent to 5 percent are deemed by the National Archives to have permanent value and kept forever.

Because of the nature of Clinton's former job, most anything related to her work would be valued as permanent, including incoming and outgoing correspondence, and therefore required to be transferred to the National Archives after 30 years, according to the State Department Records Schedule, which is approved by the National Archives and provides guidance on record-keeping.

The National Archives wants to make sure that the State Department is doing this properly; it sent a letter to State about "potential issues" with the department's record-keeping this week. "Our focus is on ensuring agencies are managing their records well, and if there are issues with the agencies, that they're correcting them," Wester said, adding in the letter that federal agencies are given 30 days to respond with an explanation about "safeguards to prevent records alienation incidents."

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