August 13, 2015 Government, In The News, News

Pre-Internet Reg Lets Air Force Destroy Political Flight Records

By Ethan Barton, The Daily Caller, 8/11/15

Antiquated regulations keep voters from seeing potentially important information about presidential candidates by allowing Air Force officials to destroy documents from politically valuable flights after only two years.

“It’s incredibly important for journalists to have access to these records so they can inform the public of what’s going on in government,” said Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press attorney Adam Marshall.

The Air Force maintains a fleet of aircraft that are used to ferry high-ranking federal and state officials on hundreds of flights around the world each year on political, diplomatic and economic development missions of varying sensitivity. Private corporate executives are included on many of the economic development junkets.

The National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance more than two decade ago – well before digital preservation of official information became available – that allows the Air Force to delete such travel records after only two years following the flights.

“We want to make sure we have systems in place to preserve what generally would be regarded as what either is or could be of public interest,” said Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Anne Weismann.

Those documents contain crucial information, including lists of passengers, reasons for travel, routes taken and the aircraft’s tail numbers, which can be used to track flights. Such records can also show interesting facts, such as the people officials flew and likely interacted with.

During the Clinton administration, then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was accused by Republicans in Congress and other critics of using the economic development flights as political rewards for Democratic contributors.

Non-profit government watchdog Judicial Watch fought a long and mostly successful battle in federal court to gain access under the Freedom of Information Act to documents about the Brown trips. Letting documents be destroyed after a certain period, however, undermines the principle of public access underlying the FOIA.

“We want to make sure we have systems in place to preserve what generally would be regarded as what either is or could be of public interest,” said Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Anne Weismann.

Such information could be useful to voters as they vet the 2016 presidential candidates.

“The importance of public access and accountability has never been greater,” Weismann said. “If the records aren’t there, it narrows the universe of information available, and it narrows the universe of information used to inform voters.”

Digital preservation of official records eliminates most of the logistical problems associated with preserving paper records from the past.

“There’s no reason these records can’t be kept in the cloud longer,” National Security Archive Director of the Freedom of Information Project Nate Jones said. “These old record schedules are a very big problem. In the digital age, the practice should be towards long retention, rather than short retention.”

Jones also said that government officials could be happy that the policies haven’t been updated, as they prevent potentially embarrassing or damaging information from becoming public.

Weismann agreed, saying “we should be putting pressure on the Archives to require agencies to take a much more refined approach.”

Until then, officials will be able to rely on the antiquated regulations.

“All uses of government aircraft must be documented and this documen-tation [sic] must be retained for at least two years,” an OMB circular from May 22, 1992 said.

OMB likely based its guidance from NARA’s General Records Schedule, Air Force Records Officer Tommy Lee told the Daily Caller News Foundation. The document was last updated in September 2014, but the generic travel guidance remains unchanged since it was originally issued Nov. 27, 1991.

“Routine administrative records including correspondence, forms and related records pertaining to commercial and noncommercial agency travel and transportation and freight functions not covered elsewhere in this schedule,” the NARA document said. “Destroy when two years old.”

The document does not specify what qualifies as “routine.”

By Ethan Barton, The Daily Caller, 8/11/15