To me, one of the most troubling things they did was their very, very, last minute decision to scrap the ECRMS after they had spent millions of dollars and years in developing it, and for reasons that just aren’t credible. Even the Archives did not accept them as credible.
What was their explanation?
Well, part of it was that it didn’t separate federal and presidential records, completely ignoring the fact that was a decision they had made early on.
But was that the right decision?
No. I think they are required to, and NARA would certainly say they are required to. If you don’t keep them separate, I don’t see how you can comply with your legal obligations for the two different kinds of records.
So when they made this incorrect decision, by the time it was 2007 and ECRMS was ready to go up, in your view it was too late to worry about it even if it was a bad decision?
But I don’t know what it would have taken to correct that. What I can’t figure out by looking at the documents was that right up until the moment they scrapped it, they were going ahead, full steam. The documentation we did get did not really offer a coherent explanation that lots of people would agree and say “That makes sense, they should have abandoned it.”
Now what my source had told me—and not surprisingly I didn’t see any confirmation of this in the documents—was what troubled people was its search capabilities, that it could do a Google-like search. As it was described to me, there was a briefing to describe how ECRMS would work, and the White House Counsel was present, and others, and the sense that this person got was that when they saw how effective it was in searching, coincidentally that was when the decision was made not to pursue it. So this person presumed from that, that that was a motivation. Obviously that’s a much more sinister explanation.
Bottom line, what your source suggested was the problem with ECRMS was that it would have worked too well.
The other thing they said was that it wasn’t going to be ready in time for a presidential transition. And NARA didn’t agree with that either. So they held out for another system that never got implemented by the time they left office.
What didn’t you get access to?
The body of documents that we did not get access to—and never will, I’m sure—is whatever communications there were with White House counsel’s office. The documents support that they were definitely involved and kept abreast of what was going on.
They would have to be—the counsel would have to know how they were meeting their records requirements.
Right. But we do know if you look at the chronology that there were certainly recommendations that were made to White House counsel’s office and then nothing happened. So one inference that I think is perfectly legitimate is that the counsel’s office is the one that killed it. But I don’t know.
You didn’t get those because they were presidential records. Won’t those be public in twelve years?
That should be the case.
What was NARA’s ability to oversee this system?
It was totally at the good graces of the White House, and the White House froze them out for long periods of time. And there was nothing NARA could do. Some of these documents really expressed NARA’s frustration. The big overriding issue for NARA is always the transition—when a new president comes in, NARA starts planning almost immediately for the transition to the next one because it’s such an humongous undertaking. NARA really needed to get information about the systems so they could start planning. And they just weren’t getting that information. They didn’t know about the problem until our report came out, and they’re kind of blown off by the White House.