Donald Trump's Destruction Of Documents
This is one a. I'm jen white in washington in july. Nineteen seventy-three alexander butterfield. The deputy assistant to president richard nixon appeared before the senate watergate committee. Butterfill are you aware of installation of any listening devices in the oval office of the president. I was aware of listening devices. Yes the nixon tapes off the modern struggle over presidential records that continues to this day and they inspired record keeping rules that the trump administration has repeatedly defied president. Trump is known for tearing up documents that he's legally required to preserve leaving records analysts no choice but to take the pieces back together. Like a jigsaw puzzle with the end of trump's presidency looming. What will be saved. And what will be lost town. Blanton is the director of the national security archive a nonprofit government watchdog. Tom it's great to have you nice to be with you. Jim also with us is richard oven. He's the director of the bodley in libraries at the university of oxford. He's also author of burning the books a history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge richard. Welcome it's great to be with you. Thank you for. Having so tom i tell us about the federal laws that regulate what information will be or should be saved from the trump administration's time in power. Well the presidential records act really was as you said. A post watergate reformed that said to all the before that presidents had treated their records just as their personal property and they had really some tragedies and losses and and destructions and the congress said in one thousand nine hundred ninety eight no. The records belong to the people. We've got a set up a legal system for saving them. I think the problem with the presidential records act is that it's an honor system effect and it gives a lot of authority. One judge in one of our lawsuits said practically unfettered authority to the president. So even though the law says if it's got historical or evidentiary our legal or administrative value it has to be saved. The presidents have had real trouble from ronald reagan to george h w bush to clinton to to this current president. Making sure those records get saved for posterity. How are the records preserved. And who's responsible for them. Most records nowadays are created digitally as you can imagine on computers email systems and and tech systems and so the great reform. I think of the last five years has been a success story from years and years of litigation i mean we sued ronald reagan to try to force them to save the white house backup tapes for email and and now thirty thirty five years later. There's automated systems that make multiple copies and those get handed off to the national archives. The united states on the day the new president is is sworn in january twentieth so The the good news is that so much is automatically saved. I think the bad news is we know from press. Reports and insider accounts that of records have not survived to this day disappearing instant text messages for example in the trump white house or the five meetings with the russian president that never got written down by the american side. Even one time. President trump grabbed his interpreters notebook away from her. So no record would be kept. So we've got some records have already disappeared But a vast we're talking hundreds of millions if not a billion electronic records have been automatically saved. Richard how do us laws compared to laws and other countries specifically around the the recordkeeping of leaders Well i think if you take the united kingdom for example We have the the public records. Nineteen fifty-eight which is not specifically around. The records kept by a prime ministers. We have very very different system for those than is in the united states in some ways inferior system i think but the nineteen fifty public records tank is is kind of format neutral in the sense that it requires Civil servants and anybody inside government to apply recordkeeping practices which that i to ensure the transparency of decision-making public policy setting and they are administered through parliament and through the system of archival. Recordkeeping is a balance between the national archives of the united kingdom. Which is the ultimate destination for anything that the needs to be kept for. Historical pups is and the record. The the record centers in the government the main government departments including the cabinet office where the the the prime minister's own papers would be kept so the system in theory should kind of parallel. What happens in the united states and it certainly meant cover electronic records and the electronic systems like email and so on the a government uses in order to do its business but just the same as in the united states. We have a similar problem. Which is that there has being be because of the desire to avoid Disclosure of information that's managed through the record keeping processes people have been moving to these commercial messaging systems like signal or telegram even snapchat so that are either encrypted or that auto delete and this is a really fundamentally changing the way that civil servants special advisers government ministers behave in order to evade that whole process that these systems like the president should records like the The public records act in the united kingdom being designed that to to make sure that there's integrity in in governments that there's transparency in decision-making we'll tell when when we talk about you know automatically deleting messages or you know the president taking an interpreter's book from hemmer. Her are those legal actions under the presidential records act. They're not legal and the white house. Counsel's office actually center around to different times in twenty seventeen a prohibiting memo to all the white house staff. You can't use those kind of apps unless you do a screen shot of the message and move it over into an official email system you are prohibited from using those kinds of techniques unless you for official business unless you save it and congress actually put that into the law in twenty eighteen. The problem we know is folks that the trump white house kept doing it. Jared kushner the president's son-in-law used what's app for example to communicate with the saudi arabian prince. Who had killed the journalists kashogi So the bad behavior kept going. And i think that's one of the real issues with the presidential records act in our system. It's it's based on faith that president would want to save his or her history. And i think with this president. We've seen a different kind of behavior. His own white house counsel don mcgann described being reprimanded by president trump. What are you doing there. Scribbling what are you doing votes. I never had a lawyer who took notes. So it's a little bit more mafia style than any kind of presidency. We've had before richard. How do you see president. Trump's behavior and his administration's lack of recordkeeping fitting in with this conversation about the destruction of knowledge throughout history. Well unfortunately there is a very long history of this kind of behavior and you know we. We've we've got plenty of examples. I talk about them in my book of states trying to destroy the state's knowledge if you like to weaken their to weaken their ability to govern or there we can their ability to administer the country. And you know there's a classic example in american history which is not my country's finest hour of course nine hundred eighteen fourteen. When a british expeditionary force besieged washington and burn the library of congress and this was a you know obviously uh in-incredibly incredibly hostile act intended to weaken the ability of the the the american nation to govern itself and there are numerous examples of that threat history when he comes into the kind of personal domain. I think there are it. There are particular twentieth century moments where this is being of of critical importance which affects individuals. Lives today and i think that's particularly true when the many of the european power was moved out of former colonies gave independence to nations which had been part of their well then pies and that's particularly true for for britain for france in algeria for example for the dutch in east asia and at that moment instead of handing ova records of the colonial administrations to the new national all kinds of new countries. Clonee administrators destroyed records to hide that. Either they're misdemeanors that that acts of corruption or race racist behavior All sometimes it was just a desire to be kind of tidy know. Let let's not all these papers floating around. But i think mostly it's actually to obstruct he history in a sense and i think that's what's most troubling about what's happening in in for in your country. With the trump administration the similar things happening in the uk at the moment. Which is this this this desire to avoid the judgement of history whether that to avoid immediate kind of legal action or through the freedom of information acts in in the uk or the us. Or i think almost the even worse in my mind is to avoid the judgment of future history. And i think that's where standards of behavior in public life need to be re-examined and those kinds of standards need to be reinserted and i think this this sense that we need to have kind of probity and Moral standards in public life needs to be reinserted at the heart of western democracies again. Tom president trump isn't the first rib documents literally or figuratively. Give us a bit more insight into how past presidents have preserved or not preserved their records. Well we've had quite a quite a run. Since the presidential record act have records act went into effect in one thousand nine hundred ninety eight. I mean the last day of the reagan administration. I was in federal courtroom. We sought an injunction to save a backup tapes of the email system that had been infected in the white house and the last day of the george h.w bush administration of bunch of career. Staff and archivists were in the white house. Literally tossing hard drives into cardboard boxes. For what one of them. Later testified in our court case was midnight. Ride to take the files back to texas At the end of george w bush administration. It turned out about twenty. Two million emails had gone missing because they had upgraded the automatic system. Someone a whistle blower said it doesn't save it automatically anymore and they didn't fix it so the obama folks. We had to sue the obama folks into their credit. They settled that case. They restored the backup tapes. They did searches to restore those missing emails. They published their visitor logs of who came to the white house to to lobby the staff. And and what's amazing to me. I think now we know. From cases that my low non-government organization has brought together with historians like the society for stories of american foreign relations that the trump white house ordered the secret service not to track the visitors. Who came to mar-a-lago so you have hold categories of records like that that just were never created were never kept and and that will be a hole in the history Forever what i hear you saying. Is that the presidential records. Act doesn't have the kind of teeth that needs to to properly enforce these these rules. What's what changes needed to. Ensure presidencies accurately documented. You're absolutely right to the. The act has a lot of gums and no teeth so it gets a little slobbery. I guess is the metaphor. If you want to really carry that out. I think the law has to restore the national archives of the united states to a far more prominent an activist and watchdog and audit position. The the national archives is kind of an orphan agency in our system. It's total budget. I think jill lepore this story in new york magazine compared it to a single c. Seventeen air force transport plane is the equivalent of the total budget of our national archives which charged with all this preservation and this soon nami of electronic records that are being created. The the national archives has to preserve so we. We've argued in court and the judges have have on the one hand sounded fire alarms saying We're sorry but the law and precedent doesn't let us intervene in the day-to-day record keeping at the white house. But please do not take this court decision as any kind of affirmation of those recordkeeping practices and congress needs to take a look at this. Does it really want to give the president such unfettered authority. We think the archivist of the united states presidential appointee confirmed by congress should be setting the standard recordkeeping at the white house. Not the president himself. We think the national archives budget should be doubled in. It should be undertaking audits. Not just sitting there waiting for the records to be dumped on it but actually prowling about to check. We think the white house should have to report on its record systems publicly so that we can get the the lifeguard whistle before it's too late and the records of already drowned or gone. We think that the law needs to give groups outside watchdogs like us a little more ability to get into court and get discovery. What's actually happening about where those disappearing instant messages are. and how much is being saved. So those things would put some teeth in the law and maybe the next congress will be more interested in holding holding a biden presidency accountable. Then they've been willing to do with the trump presidency. We're talking to tom. Blanton the director of the national archive and richard of director of the bodleian libraries at the university of oxford. Aaron comments on our facebook page. I'm surprised there isn't already one of those huge shredder trucks parked permanently outside the white house. I think they'll find. It's a lot harder to destroy evidence than they think it is. I fully expect the biden crew to find computers with smashed hard drives when they move into the white house. Well we'll get into record preservation a bit more after the break. I'm jan white. What you're more from you and our guests in a moment the this message comes from. Npr sponsor head space. Life can be stressful but twenty twenty has challenged the most difficult times of life. You need stress relief. That goes beyond quick fixes. That's head space head. Space is your daily dose of mindfulness in the form of guided. Meditations in an easy to use app need help falling asleep head. Space has winedown sessions. Go to head space dot com slash one a for a free month trial with access to head spaces full library of meditations for every situation. Do you talk about the news with your friends. 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Richard is also the author of burning the books a history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge. Perhaps the most famous incident of book burning happened at the library of alexandria and the one thousand nine hundred premiere of his tv. Show cosmos. carl sagan spoke about this legendary place. If i could travel back into time this is the place. I would visit a library of alexandria at its height two thousand years ago. All the knowledge in the ancient world was once within these marble walls. We'll talk about what you might call the modern library of alexandria the internet in a bit but first richard. How accurate is this legend of the library of alexandria while Actually it's i think it's really a myth You know there are certainly a great library of alexandria. I you know. I had enormous collections. All the ancient writers agree on that although they fundamentally disagree on exactly how many books were kept in it. They were books like we know them today. They were scrolls of papyrus but still. The ancient writers all knew that there was this great library and in fact some of them actually started their so stray bo. The geographer for example Actually you know re recorded the books that he consulted when he went to the great library of alexandria and there were other writers who also the librarians there. But what really happened. Were a series of incidents where there were fires because at least by the fourth or fifth centuries the library had gone now. I don't think that any of the scholars who who work in this field now think that there was a single incident where the library went up in flames and everything was lost but actually what happened were there were a series of smaller fires. One of them almost certainly the result of the The kind of civil war. Between caesar and ptolemy but others were actually really about the gradual decline of the library. And it's very interesting listening. It's home speaking a few minutes ago about the importance of funding the national archive and records administration in the united states properly. I couldn't agree more. I think i think what happened in alexandria was kind of similar process. Gradually the great library stopped being funded by the rulers val alexandria and over a period of time. Actually in that situation over centuries it stopped having the level of support it wasn't regarded so prominently in the state and in the kind of the royal I in the royal administration and it began to have a few staff to support it. So you know we don't exactly know but one what we do know is that by the the fourth and fifth centuries it was gone and that no record of it survives today. None of the collections have pasta down to it. Some of the texts were copied. Fortunately and have come down to us through other routes. But i think he's kind of underfunding neglect that we should take the great lesson of alexandria you know. They had as sagan so kind of eloquently. Put it this extortion achievement in civilization but a few centuries later it was gone and that should be our our warning sign. That's what we should take from the lesson of alexandria that we value libraries and archives in society not just for the knowledge that they contain but for the contribution they make to an open and democratic society. Well tom we've seen this shift from paper to digital. How has that changed the way. The federal government keeps records dramatic. Change imagine going from a vault a file cabinet of paper to what you could carry around the size of your thumb withhold. What were the contents of the library of congress. Ten or twenty years ago so the thumb drive with you know ten terabytes the storage capacities extraordinary and also the volume is extraordinary. That in many ways the task of an arca this decades ago was mainly about weeding out what was not useful or historically valuable or should be saved and estimates are that only about one to two percent of the federal government's records from decades ago got saved on an ordinary basis and today with electronic systems. While on the one hand they can be fragile. There's a famous weekend at the white house in the reagan years. Where oliver north of iran-contra notoriety spent the weekend deleting his emails one at a time. Unbeknownst him there was a backup. Tapes got saved so they were reconstructed. So there's a fragility to electric records on the one hand but on the other hand that backup tape shows you the robustness of preservation in a in a digital age. You can restore this backup tapes. You can maintain them in in multiple locations whether there on the cloud or on thumb drives or whatever. Well that this leads to this question. From steve in atlanta. Who says i wonder what steps archivists are taking to make sure electronic records endure hard drives from the eighties and nineties. For instance are often degraded or their contents can not be read by any currently available software. The only records we know last five hundred years or longer are on good quality paper. Wha what we know about how. The archives are adjusting to the changes in in digitisation. That's a great question in. Its goes to resources. I think is richard commented. He's been involved in all kinds of digital preservation initiatives in europe and the uk. And what archivists have to do is migrate the information from old media to new media. There was a fascinating case. Where some old dicta belts from. The eisenhower presidency were discovered decades later but there was no machine that could actually read them and they had to go back to the headquarters of the dicta belt company. I think it was in indianapolis or somewhere and there was an old machine under a glass dome in the lobby as a showpiece and they cannibalized that machine in order to read the tapes and restore. Eisenhower's voice think about that as an extraordinary record for history. So it's a challenge a huge challenge. And that's where resources are of the essence. But i would say. There are other professions particularly the legal profession and in corporations that are much more on the cutting edge than we've allowed our government agencies to be because of this underfunding problem and that i think There are some great technical solutions even for saving those text messages. If they're on a government Smartphone there are some technical ways to make sure those go into into the formal record. But it's a huge ongoing challenge. Oh linda in green bay. Wisconsin emailed us. Isn't it ironic that people in the trump white house are using things like what's app when they made hillary's use of personal e mail server a core part of their two thousand sixteen campaign. Where does the hilary clinton email. Controversy fit into this conversation time. That's a great question from your listener because we now have evidence of at least four or five leading trump appointee. The president's daughter ivanka. The education secretary devos the veterans secretary. Schulkin all have been caught using personal email systems to carry out government business and I guess the the evidence hypocrisy doesn't seem to bother folks in the administration but it it poses that larger question in the digital age. How do we make sure they were. Government does is adequately documented is available both for historians for legal administrative evidentiary proceedings. Everything from your social security record or your military service record to the transcript of a head of state meeting. Those are all important all need to be saved And i think the the hillary email issue actually impart arose. From how clunky. The state department systems were they were not automatically saving emails. You couldn't go back and retrieve those emails easily That's only been in the last six or eight years that that's been in place so she used a private server. I think both for convenience and four legal control so that if anybody came after it she could and her lawyers could prevent that we're talking. Tom blanton the director of the national security archive and richard. Dan author of burning the books. A history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge. We'll have more with them and with you right after this break. This is one eight from w. amu and npr. This message comes from npr sponsor. Three am supporting communities in the fight against covid nineteen since the outbreak. 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Perhaps for decades or even centuries where does the need for secrecy fit into the presidential records act. It's not in the act itself. It's a series. The need for secrecy is in a series of other rules and regulations that govern govern national security secrets which is what the questioner is asking about. And those secrets. Yes possibly that There's a good reason for preserving the for keeping those things secret for decades but the presidential records act itself says five years after a president leaves office. The national archives should begin making those records available to the public. Twelve years is the rule for classified information or material. Say about supreme court nominees. That would be personal privacy matter so But the rules on national security secrets. I think you can see it. In the famous transcript with the ukrainian president that the trump administration originally would have called that conversation that transcript between trump and ski a top secret documents that would damage relations but ultimately ordered it declassified because they thought it would actually make the president look good In when you read it as an outsider. A citizen historian You look at this transcript. You wonder well that probably could have been released after a year two. That was not something that should be tied up for twelve years. Under the presidential records act or decades richard. I'm curious you know we think about how it used to go to the library to look things up now. We go to what concerns. Do you have a bout big tech controlling so much of our access to knowledge. Well i have a huge concerned about this. I think we should all be worried about the kind of process that's happening across society. Generally about the transfer of responsibility if you like for keeping social knowledge so the control over the distribution as well as the creation of information that the big tech companies have if you think of the number of images that are uploaded to social media science the amount of messaging that goes on in messaging system commercial. messaging systems like watson. P- if you think of the you know the number says she's made on search engines. Every second is absolutely staggering. But the waltz even more staggering is not all that information is being gathered and harvested and profiles of each one of us Of tov and yourself myself being built up every single day and these profiles are then traded by the big tech companies. I've i is trading was done. In order to commercialize online advertising say that we would have personalized ads based on our credit card. Spending all the fact that we searched for know hotels in tunisia meant the next time we go to a newspaper website. The adverts for about flights to tunisia. So what's what we now. Increasingly know is the that process or ability to use those online profiles of all of our clicks on lichen on facebook. Every time we search for something on google all of that is because of what we know about cambridge analysts can. Facebook was being used to target political campaigning. Political campaigning was either targeting political advertising or identifying individuals who could be targeted faw voter suppression or voter encouragement. And this is all happened. Very very secretively. You know Because the big tech companies. What my colleague at oxford the great historian timothy garton ash cools the private superpowers. These organizations. We know that are very difficult for governments to regulate they the entire globe. They have massive financial resources. And you know they've really only accountable to their shareholders and in many cases that that they're even kind of private privately i'd let alone by by shareholders time. We have just a under a minute here. But i'm curious how you and your organization how you're preparing for the end of the trump presidency and trying to ensure that records from this presidency are in fact preserved gray question. We've been interviewing a lot of the career civil servants because those are folks with as richard was pointing to the need for morality in public life. These are folks who have serious ethical system. They understand the calling and the legal requirements of the records laws. They understand the good functioning of government depends on knowing what you did before and why therefore records are essential for that as don mcgann told trump. I'm a lawyer. I take note so i know what happened. And those folks are giving us some assurance especially about the automated email systems. I think the other Dynamic is we're in court on a couple of different cases where if there are credible allegations of a bonfire in the rose garden. We'll be able to get a court order to bring in some fire extinguishers. That's tom blanton. He's the director of the national security. Archive a nonprofit government watchdog group and richard oven. He's the director of the bottle. Bodley in libraries at the university of and author of a new book called burning the books a history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge. Thanks to you both. And here's an idea. From calvin on twitter he says incentivize it. If you don't get a ninety nine percent score on the federal records act you. Don't get a presidential library or the library should be empty where the records should have been today's producer. Was avery kleinman. This program comes to you from w. a. m. u. part of american university in washington distributed by npr. I'm jed white. Thanks for listening. Now let's talk more soon. 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