Report Criticizes CIA Recordkeeping

WASHINGTON (04/05/2000) - Flawed recordkeeping practices at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency have increased the risk of losing critical data, including documents about agency activities and policies and information of historical value, according to a report by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The report, "Records Management in the Central Intelligence Agency: A NARA Evaluation," found "serious shortcomings" in the CIA's overall recordkeeping practices and singled out the agency's handling of electronic records. The failure of the CIA to inventory and schedule key electronic records for transfer to NARA poses "a serious risk that information of great value will not be preserved," the report stated.

The CIA established an Electronic Records Management Program Office in 1995 after a congressional request for information sent officials scrambling to locate data stored on a wide array of systems, local servers and paper files.

The overall success of the office has been "mixed," according to the report.

Although the agency has "strongly embraced" electronic recordkeeping, it has lagged far behind in scheduling data contained in automated systems, the report found. The agency maintains thousands of systems but has submitted schedules covering only about 60 of them, nearly all of which pertain to routine administrative functions. None of the major systems that contain key records, such as the President's Daily Brief, major intelligence publications and files pertaining to covert operations, has been scheduled.

"Many in the CIA believe that electronically maintained information is not a record, or if it is a record, it is almost invariably disposable," the report stated. "They also believe that when the retention of electronic data is required, it can and should be preserved in a hard copy format."

By 2002, CIA officials plan to deploy a centralized electronic repository to streamline record creation, maintenance and retrieval. The Pro-active Electronic Records Management (PERM) system will collect and display information from official agency documents from the time of their creation. It also will provide automated alerts when documents become eligible for declassification review.

The first phase of PERM has focused on e-mail. However, the system is not yet capable of determining whether individual e-mail messages have official record status. Likewise, PERM's success in simplifying electronic record maintenance will depend on the "extent that it incorporates other databases and office automation applications," according to the report. The agency has developed plans to integrate other systems with PERM, but the plans do not include a migration strategy that complies with NARA regulations.

Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said that whenever a "mild-mannered" agency such as NARA issues a report like this, it is worth noting. "CIA is probably not doing a worse job of records management than other agencies, but it ought to be doing considerably better," Aftergood said. "After all, the task of information management is essential to intelligence production. If the agency can't get this right, it is wasting its time - and our money."

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