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Some Fear White House Is Destroying Or Failing To Keep Public Records

Feb 21, 2020
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The Trump administration is coming under fire for its handling of government records. Historians and activists charge that the White House has failed to keep notes of the president's meetings with foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that other papers, including records of abuses of undocumented immigrants, could be destroyed. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Immigration activists fear that records relating to the treatment of undocumented immigrants, including detainee deaths, complaints about medical conditions and sexual assault and abuse of detainees, could be destroyed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE. Emily Creighton is an attorney with the American Immigration Council. It and three other groups this week filed Freedom of Information Act requests with ICE asking for the documents as a way to keep them intact.

EMILY CREIGHTON: To think that in 10, 20, 30 years we will not be able to have access to documents that will really provide a full picture of some of the horrific conditions in detention and some of the experience that - experiences people have in detention is really mind-boggling. And it's almost as though we are, you know, erasing our nation's conscience.

NAYLOR: In a statement to NPR, ICE says it is following standard government practice for determining which documents to retain, and that the ultimate arbiter of how records are preserved is the National Archives. The archives is responsible for collecting and preserving documents throughout government. In a press release on its website, it says that after receiving public comments, it will be preserving some immigration documents for 25 years. That includes records involving allegation of sexual assault and abuse.

Columbia University history professor Matthew Connelly says that's not really sufficient.

MATTHEW CONNELLY: They've decided that records related, for instance, to the sexual abuse of detainees, these are records that they are going to retain for some 25 years or so. They feel like that's long enough for people to file FOIAs, for litigation to play out. But what that means is that, you know, 30 years from now, none of those records will any longer exist. They'll all be gone.

NAYLOR: The National Archives turned down a request for an interview, but Connelly says the agency is overwhelmed.

CONNELLY: In fairness, the National Archives has always had a difficult job. You know, in effect, they're trying to predict history. They're trying to predict what historians are going to be interested in many years from now. But that job has gotten a lot harder because the National Archives has been starved of resources.

NAYLOR: He says the archives has a smaller budget now than in 2008 and a smaller workforce now than in 1985. Historians are fighting on another front with the Trump administration over the preservation - or in some cases even the creation - of presidential records. President Trump is reportedly averse to having note-takers present at his meetings with foreign leaders and is said to have torn up some notes in violation of the Presidential Records Act.

Thomas Blanton is director of the National Security Archive, which advocates for a more open government.

THOMAS BLANTON: This is an administration that doesn't want to keep a record. Keeping a record might contradict the president. That would be bad for your professional future at the White House. So the current practices show up the Presidential Records Act as a kind of honor system that is really outdated today.

NAYLOR: The National Security Archive and other groups filed suit to try to force the Trump White House to do a better job of keeping and preserving records. It was dismissed by Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who essentially ruled it wasn't up to the court to enforce the act based on the way it was written. The groups are appealing.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.