The disposition of ISIS records

The New York Times just broke a story by investigative journalist Rukmini Callimachi titled “The ISIS files” exploring the way in which records kept by ISIS in Mosul reveal its efforts to build bureaucracy. ISIS demanded that Iraqi government workers continue to report to their offices. This allowed ISIS to take over existing state infrastructure, instead of having to invent it from the ground up.

As an archivist and records manager, I tend to read investigative journalism about caches of documents with an eye for the details that often aren’t revealed until several paragraphs in – if at all. Details like, how did the journalist get access to the records? Where are the records now? Were the records mostly intact, or just partial remainders from a larger series that might have been destroyed or removed? Are we talking paper or electronic, or both? What kind of authenticity measures were used to establish provenance? There is a brief exhibit of some of the documents the Times studied, and you can view them here.

Unfortunately, the Times story is light on these details, but there is one particularly revealing paragraph. Callimachi searched many government buildings for any documents she could find:

Because the buildings were near the front lines, Iraqi security forces nearly always accompanied our team. They led the way and gave permission to take the documents. In time, the troops escorting us became our sources and they, in turn, shared what they found, augmenting our cache by hundreds of records.

Callimachi devotes several paragraphs in her story to non-Sunni residents around Mosul (Shia Muslims and Christians) whose property was seized in order to be redistributed to ISIS soldiers and their families. Many of the files contained survey plats and other notes about the property. She writes:

Folder after folder, 273 in all, identified plots of land owned by farmers who belonged to one of the faiths banned by the group. Each yellow sleeve contained the handwritten request of a Sunni applying to confiscate the property.

ISIS-controlled state offices also issued vital records:

Babies born under the caliphate’s black flag were issued birth certificates on ISIS stationery.

I admittedly don’t know the first thing about the Iraqi legal system, but it seems to me that these records will be critical to those individuals whose land was seized by ISIS, or individuals who need access to vital records documenting the time and location of their birth.

Indeed, the question of “what to do with the state records left behind by former regimes?” has been deeply explored in the archival literature, especially within the last several years (Caswell, 2011; Cox, 2010; Cox, 2011; Cox, 2014; Montgomery, 2012; Montgomery, 2014; Montgomery, 2015), and there are also protocols for proper handling of cultural materials in warzones. Interestingly, one commenter suggested that the Times deposit these records at a US special collections for researchers to use. While I don’t expect journalists to be familiar with the work of archivists on the legal and ethical issues of sensitive records, I am very concerned that these records are maintained in such a way that they prioritize the victims’ human rights first and foremost – a need that is potentially (though not necessarily) at odds with the interests of journalists and researchers.

(Update: I had left a brief comment on the New York Times website re: my concern from an archivist perspective, and looks like it’s getting picked up via Twitter. I’m no longer on twitter, but I’d appreciate if someone could DM the journalists on my behalf and connect us!)

 

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Next RMS hangout: Records Managers Outside of Archives speak up!

After a few months’ hiatus, the Records Management Section Hangout Series is back!

On Thursday, March 29 at 12:00 CDT, join members of the RMS steering committee in a discussion on ““What RMs Want: Records Managers On What They Wish Archivists Knew About Them (And Vice-Versa)”. Experienced records managers Dennis Larsen (retired, formerly Records Manager for the University of Wisconsin-Colleges and Extension) and Connie Schumacher (Content and Records Manager, Argonne National Laboratories)  will answer questions about their experiences in records management environments in which archivists are removed from the immediate administrative hierarchy, but still interact with the records management staff to fulfill organizational and research mandates. Records Managers in such environments often have very different concerns and priorities than records managers also working as or under an archivist. During the hangout, we will examine those priorities and determine how archivists can work to help meet them, as well as how these different perspectives can benefit an organization’s archival program. (As a municipal records manager under the Milwaukee City Clerk but with working relationships with at least two different City archival or quasi-archival repositories, I will weigh in on this as well!)

To tune in live to the hangout, please visit the YouTube watch page; following the discussion, the recording will be available at that same URL. RMS staff will be monitoring the page feed and social media for questions for our speakers; please use the #saarms hashtag on Twitter to ensure maximum visibility for your question, or leave it as a comment ahead of time at the RMS Blog. Look forward to seeing you there!

A Record Center Is Not An Archives: Dispatches from a ARM sector change

Welcome back from SAA! Or, if like me, you were #saaleftbehind, welcome back from the weekend, I guess. I’ve been pretty quiet on The Schedule for a while; part of that has been my natural tendency to fall behind on blog posts, but the other part has been this:
BusinessCard

That’s right! In case you missed it on social media or in the MAC Newsletter, I have left my position of 10 years as University Records Archivist at UWM and moved across town to become the Records Officer and Document Services Manager for the City of Milwaukee. In some ways it’s kind of an odd position, born out of the Document Services Section’s previous life as Milwaukee Printing and Records. I manage the City’s Records Management program, yes, but also the City Records Center, the City’s imaging service for long-term inactive records (previously the microfilming service), and, for some reason, the City Mailroom (which has of course had the most major issues crop up, since it’s the part of this job I know the least about). Despite this sort of odd present, the position has an exciting future—City Records is going to be merging with the Legislative Reference Bureau library and the Historic Preservation Office to create a City Research Center, the nature of which is still being determined. Coming in now thus gives me a great opportunity to help shape not just my position, but the way that active, inactive, and archival information is managed across the whole city going forward.

But anyway! Local government! I’ve spent most of my career doing Archives and Records Management in an academic setting, and have a pretty good chunk of experience from undergrad and grad school working in a Federal government records setting, but municipal government is a new beast for me (and for this blog, I think!). Don’t get me wrong—I am enjoying the challenge of working in a new context, but it IS a challenge. Moving to a new institution and setting has given me a lot to chew over and learn about. For the sake of not writing a 5000-word post, three examples:

Continue reading “A Record Center Is Not An Archives: Dispatches from a ARM sector change”

How to Audit Nothing

A local news story recently caught my attention, because it contains many lessons for records professionals, auditors, and local government. Last month, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported,

“A tiny river town in Adams County has no mayor, no clerk and, apparently, no financial records. The state auditor’s office has ruled the Village of Rome “unauditable” and is warning that legal action may follow.

In a press release Monday, the Ohio Auditor of State reported that during its audit of the village, which is scheduled to take place every two years, no financial records were provided.”

The entire story is worth reading. In addition to the lack of records, it seems that the Village of Rome lacks clear elected leadership, and that no one ran for mayor, clerk, or council during the last election.

This got me thinking – is this a recurring issue in very small jurisdictions? The Village of Rome only had 94 citizens at the time of the 2010 Census. While I don’t know much about the demographics of Rome, it does seem like it would be difficult to find and recruit enough elected representatives from a body of fewer than 100. From a quick web search, this seems like it’s an issue all over the United States. Jacksonburg, Ohio (population: 64) has gone at least 10 years without anyone filing for the top offices (in which case a write-in wins, or someone must be appointed). In Minnesota, 2/3 of local offices either have 0 or 1 candidate running, and over 30 cities have no one running for mayor. Sometimes there is little documented guidance about what to do if you want to retire and no one else files to run for your spot.

A common theme through many of these articles is that running for elected office in small jurisdictions is a thankless job: little compensation, or recognition, but still a significant amount of work. And since many rural residents now commute long distances to larger urban areas, there is a small pool of people potentially willing to run for elected office.

So what are the records management implications? Obviously even the smallest community is not an island unto itself, and typically is part of a larger governance relationship. It may be required to submit records to the county or state on a regular basis. And as we see from the Village of Rome, officials with records responsibilities are the key ingredient to not only creating and maintaining records, but performing their own act of archival transparency and authenticity by existing in the first place to turn over records to auditors. No people means no records.

Perhaps the best summary of this mess comes from the press release from the Ohio Auditor of State:

“It’s tough to start an audit when you can’t even find the people in charge,” Auditor Yost said, “but it’s even harder when they don’t provide any records.”

Transparency and its Discontents

The denizens of Twitter like to dump on Matt Yglesias, blogger and executive editor at Vox.com, but said dumping is not always warranted. Tendencies to oversimplify and be contrarian for the sake of it aside, he does write not a few pieces that do provide some good insight into the political environment. His latest piece, “Against Transparency”, ain’t one of those, however:

Treating email as public by default rather than private like phone calls does not serve the public interest. Rather than public servants communicating with the best tool available for communication purposes, they’re communicating with an arbitrary legal distinction in mind.

[…]

Government secrecy can be, and in some ways is, out of control. But a private conversation to facilitate a frank exchange of ideas is not the same as a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. We need to let public officials talk to each other — and to their professional contacts outside the government — in ways that are both honest and technologically modern.

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God bless the internet.

As Eira Tansey, who graciously looked this post over for me (Thanks Eira!), points out, this is just the latest in a subtle, but real, trend among contrarian-type thinkpiece authors, in which  the era of open government is lamented as impeding government from functioning properly. (See this recent article in The Atlantic for another example of this genre; mourning the demise of party machines is a nice touch.) This one, however, hits a bit more home, for obvious reasons. For more explication of why this article raises my records management hackles, follow me past the jump.

Continue reading “Transparency and its Discontents”

Latest Edition of SAA’s The Records Manager newsletter, Spring 2016 issue is published

Dear RMRT Members:

Here are the Highlights from the Spring 2016 issue of The Records Manager, newsletter of the SAA Records Management Roundtable:

In this edition of SAA’s The Records Manager, you will find the following postings:

  • RMRT Hangouts: ePADD for Email Archives;
  • Back to the Basics in Researching- Lorette Weldon;
  • Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age- Eira Tansey;
  • Records Managers: Not Making This Stuff Up, Part the Billionth- Brad Houston

Enjoy the Spring 2016 issue of The Records Manager.

You can retrieve the current issue of the newsletter at

https://www.scribd.com/doc/314715094/Spring-2016-SAA-s-The-Records-Manager

Please remember that the RMRT website can be found at http://www2.archivists.org/groups/records-management-roundtable

The newsletter archives can be found at http://www2.archivists.org/groups/records-management-roundtable/the-records-manager-newslette

Best,
Lorette Weldon

Newsletter Editor, The Records Manager (http://www2.archivists.org/groups/records-management-roundtable/the-records-manager-newsletter)

Records Managers: Not Making This Stuff Up, Part the Billionth

So! The Office of the Inspector General released its report on Hillary Clinton’s emails today. Perhaps you’d heard about it.

The report itself is here (Warning: major TL;DR alert). It reads like a litany of “everything that can go wrong with a digital records management program”–poor communication, lack of executive buy-in, technology not up to the job of meeting requirements– and my plan is to break down the whole thing at some point to take a closer look at what happened from a purely records management standpoint. But in light of Eira’s excellent post on institutional silences and the digital dark ages, I wanted to quickly hit one paragraph that jumped out at me:

Two staff in S/ES-IRM reported to OIG that, in late 2010, they each discussed their concerns about Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal email account in separate meetings with the then-Director of S/ES-IRM. In one meeting, one staff member raised concerns that information sent and received on Secretary Clinton’s account could contain Federal records that needed to be preserved in order to satisfy Federal recordkeeping requirements. According to the staff member, the Director stated that the Secretary’s personal system had been reviewed and approved by Department legal staff and that the matter was not to be discussed any further. As previously noted, OIG found no evidence that staff in the Office of the Legal Adviser reviewed or approved Secretary Clinton’s personal system. According to the other S/ES-IRM staff member who raised concerns about the server, the Director stated that the mission of S/ES-IRM is to support the Secretary and instructed the staff never to speak of the Secretary’s personal email system again.

Holy moly. I am simultaneously astonished and not at all surprised that this conversation happened. Without attempting to divine the source of this supposed gag order or the motivation behind it, there is at minimum a failure to communicate happening here, and in all likelihood a deeply ingrained culture of subordination. Two employees, rightly concerned that use of a personal email account posed a recordkeeping and security risk, were specifically told that they were there “to support the Secretary”, and as a result questioning her use of personal email was anathema. That is really an incredible directive, if substantiated. I would argue that pointing out vulnerabilities in information security and governance IS supporting the Secretary (by, say, helping her avoid a prolonged investigation into her email management practices during an election year), but that’s just me.

And yet… what do you even DO in this case as a records manager? In a lot of institutions records managers are so far down the totem pole that there’s not a lot of pushing back to be done if a C-level staffer doesn’t want to follow records management directives to the letter. It’s easier to stand up to your negligent or reluctant official if you’re based out of the Legal department (and even easier if you are yourself a lawyer), but for a records manager based out of an administrative department, or the library? How do you make the case for good records practices when you have been explicitly told not to pursue it? How far do you stick your neck out for the sake of the historical record and transparency, vs. the short-term interests of your institution? Particularly if, as in so many cases, the records law which you are following has no real penalty for non-compliance other than the hypothetical/tangential “you might get sued”?

I don’t have an answer to any of the above questions. I’ve struggled with the right level of aggressiveness in pursuing records of high-level officials at my own institution, and have almost certainly lost some key electronic records being kept on a personal hard drive or in an email account because of it. (Elsewhere in the report records staff reports “not feeling comfortable” directing the Secretary to use the internal records system and looking for an automatic system to capture the records; I feel this anxiety acutely.) In this *particular* case Secretary Clinton released (most of) the emails after the fact, so the damage to transparency and the historical record is perhaps not as great as it could have been. In other cases? Who knows what’s being lost because the records manager is not as much in control as he/she would like to be.

These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, because I am an enormous nerd and am kept awake by records management questions. (Well, that and a one-year-old baby.)