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In the age of digital information, it is easier than it ever has been for government agencies to alter or delete official records at the flick of a switch. The U.S. Code (Title 44) and Code of Federal Regulations (Title 36) require agencies to “prevent the unlawful or accidental removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records.” But the official government guidelines for Managing Web Records are 13 years old and are subject to interpretation by political appointees in individual agencies.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) investigates allegations of violations of this law and will assist agencies in retrieving records. Its Performance Accountability Report has, for for many years, provided an end-of-year snapshot of cases investigated.
This year, NARA has created a web dashboard, which it will update monthly, listing the “Unauthorized Disposition of Federal Records.” More information about this is available from the Sunlight Foundation:
- National Archives publishes online dashboard of its investigations into lost, altered or destroyed public records, by Alex Howard, Sunlight Foundation (Apr 24, 2018).
The dashboard lists the agencies and records involved, the status of the investigation, and provides links to documentation about the events.
Recently listed events include the “Suspicious-activity reports (SARs)” (which were widely reported as being absent from the database maintained by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN)), and the use of private (non-.gov) email accounts by officials of Homeland Security. There are currently 24 open cases and 46 cases closed cases.
MSU scholars find $21 trillion in unauthorized government spending. Agencies disable links to key documents
I visited the MSU Today news site for the headline about massive unauthorized spending happening at the Department of Defense and Housing and Urban Development. That in and of itself was troubling. But what really drew my attention was in the 2nd paragraph where it stated that the agencies’ Inspector Generals(!) — which are supposed to be the watchdogs of their agencies! — had “disabl[ed] the links to all key documents showing the unsupported spending” and the parenthetical note about the researchers having downloaded and saved their documents locally. Read more of the story at USAWatchdog.
This is the reason why libraries need to get on the ball and become active in digital collection development. Professor Skidmore luckily downloaded and made the documents available. But as long as govt publications are only available on .gov websites and Title 44 regulations for executive agencies to make their documents available to the FDLP are ignored by agencies and the OMB, then this kind of thing will continue to happen. Whether it’s 1 document or 100TB of data, FDLP libraries owe it to themselves and their local communities to do this kind of work. I’m now mulling about how to best provide space for the documents that my library’s researchers download to do their research.
Earlier this year, a Michigan State University economist, working with graduate students and a former government official, found $21 trillion in unauthorized spending in the departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development for the years 1998-2015.
The work of Mark Skidmore and his team, which included digging into government websites and repeated queries to U.S. agencies that went unanswered, coincided with the Office of Inspector General, at one point, disabling the links to all key documents showing the unsupported spending. (Luckily, the researchers downloaded and stored the documents.)
“although the exact number of USDA publications could not be determined, the amount would be a small percentage because GPO focuses most of its efforts on congressional publications.”
We just came across this recent report of the GPO Inspector General (IG) called “Additional Information Needed for Ensuring Availability of Government Information Through the Federal Depository Library Program” (archived copy). Though this report was published the week before the recent Fall ’17 Depository Library Conference, it was not mentioned at all at conference, though there was information within the report which would have been incredibly useful for the Title 44 discussion held over the bulk of the first 2 days of conference.
There were some positives mentioned in the report. For example, I hadn’t known that GPO and the Library of Congress are currently working on a project to develop new strategies for increasing discovery and access to Government information across federal agencies. the project’s goals are to identify “top-level agency stakeholders in agency publishing,” make agencies aware of their Title 44 responsibilities and work on preservation policies for agency publications and especially born-digital materials.
Additionally, according to GPO, the approach it takes in finding agency publications is a “proactive” one. In general, the approach consists of: 1) providing a web presence and means for agencies to notify GPO of published documents; 2) directly contacting agency representatives, 3) reaching out to agency customers, and 4) web harvesting.
- “Some” Agencies Did Not Provide List of Publications to GPO, as Required (my quotes, the report did not specify a number.)
- GPO Policies and Procedures Need to be Detailed to Support Program Goals
- Strengthening Processes that Capture Government Publications
Although the GPO Inspector General “consider[s] management’s comments responsive to the three recommendations, which are considered resolved but will remain open until implementation of the proposed corrective actions,” we’re disturbed by some of the IG’s findings, especially in regard to the seeming nonchalance of GPO toward executive agency fugitive documents in general and the USDA in particular.
Though GPO has a supposedly “proactive” approach to capturing government publications, it seems that an inordinately large amount of executive publications are not made available to the FDLP, or otherwise collected, described or preserved (see the IG report’s analysis of USDA). Their Web harvesting program only has 6 Web archived USDA publications. And their outreach to agency customers is woefully inadequate as it seems from this report that very few agencies — or even the federal librarians working in those agencies! — are aware of their Title requirements, OMB Circular No. A-130, and other governing compliance requirements, have been contacted by GPO staff or even know that GPO exists. Case in point, on page 10 of the report, the Chief Collection Development Librarian for the U.S. National Agricultural Library had “identified and provided OIG with a list of 3,299 publications he believed should be included in the FDLP. The Librarian told us the information was not provided to GPO and that GPO had not contacted the Library for a list of issued publications.”
On a side — equally disturbing — note, we also found that a) none of the GPO IG’s investigation outcomes and only a very small percentage of the audits are available online; b) only the GPO IG’s semiannual reports to Congress are available on the new Oversight.gov site whose tagline is “all federal Inspector General reports in one place;” and c) even more worrying, NONE of them are cataloged in the CGP though they are hosted on GPO’s Website and presumably are within the scope of the FDLP. It seems like a no-brainer for ALL GPO IG REPORTS to be hosted on govinfo.gov in the GPO Collection.
We hope that GPO will be taking all necessary steps to implement the proposed corrective actions laid out by the IG. We will be sending this post and the IG report to Depository Library Council in the hopes that DLC can stress to GPO the ongoing importance of both digital and physical collection development activities to libraries and the public.
“Congress established the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) to provide free public access to Federal Government information. Creation, distribution, retention, and preservation of information has evolved from a simple tangible, paper-based process to now include digital processes managed primarily through various information technologies. Regardless of format, FDLP publications must conform to the definition of Government publications as defined in section 1902, title 44 of the United States Code (44 U.S.C. § 1901), GPO policy, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-130, that is, generally all published Federal information products, regardless of format or medium, that are of public interest or educational value or produced using Federal funds.
The transition to digital information raises a number of issues resulting in more diverse responsibilities for GPO. In that context, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted a review to determine the steps GPO took for ensuring information developed at the expense of taxpayers was made available to the public through the FDLP. To address our objective, in general, we tested compliance with select sections of Title 44, reviewed program goals and achievements, and tested processes used to capture Government publications at a select agency—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).”
This just came through my twitter feed from @MuckRock. Through a FOIA request which shook it loose from the notoriously difficult NSA, we now have access to NSA’s 2007 Untangling the Web: a guide to Internet research. It kind of reads like a Terry Pratchett novel if Terry was having a psychotic/psychedelic episode. As MuckRock notes, “you don’t have to go very far before this takes a hard turn into ‘Dungeons and Dragons campaign/Classics major’s undergraduate thesis’ territory.” Read on, you’ll thank me later!
And if you’re interested, I collected and cataloged a version for our library. The original NSA link to the document no longer resolves (and it was put up just last year!!), but there’s an archived copy in the WayBack Machine.
The NSA has a well-earned reputation for being one of the tougher agencies to get records out of, making those rare FOIA wins all the sweeter. In the case of Untangling the Web, the agency’s 2007 guide to internet research, the fact that the records in question just so happen to be absolutely insane are just icing on the cake – or as the guide would put it, “the nectar on the ambrosia.”
I was so happy to see that the Memory Hole — which for a long time posted amazing FOIA’d and found government documents but which went dark in 2009 — is back to work. Russ Kick is doing yeoman’s work to shake loose and shine light on amazing documents. I often save copies in the Stanford Digital Repository and make them available via our library catalog. I hope others will do the same. Scroll to the bottom of the site to subscribe to weekly updates. Welcome back Russ and the Memory Hole!!
The Memory Hole 2 – run by Russ Kick – saves important documents from oblivion. Its predecessor, The Memory Hole (2002-2009), posted hundreds of documents, many of which will be reposted on the new site.
The Memory Hole 2 achieves its mission in several ways:
- Discovering what documents the US government has pulled offline, recovering them, and reposting them here. In this way, The Memory Hole 2 is the reverse of its namesake in George Orwells 1984, in which official documents that were no longer convenient for the powers-that-be were sent to a furnace through a hole in the wall.
- Digitizing and posting important documents that previously existed only on paper.
- Filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documents across the federal government (including Cabinet-level departments, regulatory agencies, intelligence agencies, and the military), then posting the results. I also sometimes file at the state and local levels, as well as with governments outside the US.
- Posting documents obtained by other researchers.
- Proactively mirroring important documents that seem in danger of being pulled offline.
- Posting documents that are available but are languishing in obscurity. This may include documents buried in huge search-only archives (not browsable), forgotten news reports, startling passages from books, court decisions, etc.
- Converting documents from inconvenient or cumbersome formats into convenient ones. This might include taking hundreds of one-page and two-page PDF files and merging them into a single document, or making a photo gallery out of images in scattered locations.
- I do some behind-the-scenes work by downloading gigabytes worth of documents from government websites that use dirty tricks to block automatic archiving and caching, As long as the documents stay on the official sites, I may not post them, but if they ever go missing, I have copies.