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Whistleblowers & Leakers and Records Management @ the SEC 2011/08/18

Posted by nydawg in Archives, Digital Archives, Digital Preservation, Education, Electronic Records, Information Technology (IT), Privacy & Security, Records Management.
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Does it seem like whistleblowers and leakers have been in the news more and more over the last decade?  Perhaps it’s because I’m more tuned in and looking at things from an  archivist’s or records manager’s point of view, but there have been some high-profile intriguing cases with whistleblowers.  And I’m not just talking about Private first class (Pfc) Bradley Manning who leaked to WikiLeaks copies of diplomatic cable communications, classified documents, prison dossiers, classified war logs, embassy reports and a video, “Collateral Murder”, known as “a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff.

Meanwhile, Manning is in jail somewhere and may possibly face the death penalty because he copied, zipped, and uploaded a classified video: ” Specification 11 covers the release of “a file named ‘BE22 PAX.zip‘ containing a video named ‘BE22 PAX.wmv.'”  This likely is the video of the 2009 Afghani airstrike that Wikileaks published.
This morning I heard about a brief mention about an SEC whistleblower revealing how a poor records management (in this case, document disposal and destruction) policy cover up Wall Street crimes.  From Matt Taibbi’s excellent piece in Rolling Stone:

“That, it now appears, is exactly how the Securities and Exchange Commission has been treating the Wall Street criminals who cratered the global economy a few years back. For the past two decades, according to a whistle-blower at the SEC who recently came forward to Congress, the agency has been systematically destroying records of its preliminary investigations once they are closed. By whitewashing the files of some of the nation’s worst financial criminals, the SEC has kept an entire generation of federal investigators in the dark about past inquiries into insider trading, fraud and market manipulation against companies like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and AIG. With a few strokes of the keyboard, the evidence gathered during thousands of investigations – “18,000 … including Madoff,” as one high-ranking SEC official put it during a panicked meeting about the destruction – has apparently disappeared forever into the wormhole of history.”

In other words, they gather records, take the evidence and then destroy it!  But since these are the nation’s records, there must be some connection to National Archives, and there is.   “Under a deal the SEC worked out with the National Archives and Records Administration, all of the agency’s records – “including case files relating to preliminary investigations” – are supposed to be maintained for at least 25 years. But the SEC, using history-altering practices that for once actually deserve the overused and usually hysterical term “Orwellian,” devised an elaborate and possibly illegal system under which staffers were directed to dispose of the documents from any preliminary inquiry that did not receive approval from senior staff to become a full-blown, formal investigation.” but

“The enforcement division of the SEC even spelled out the procedure in writing, on the commission’s internal website. “After you have closed a MUI that has not become an investigation,” the site advised staffers, “you should dispose of any documents obtained in connection with the MUI.”  Read all about it in Taibbi’s “Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?

My impression is that this is obviously all about Records Management policies, processes, procedures and etc.  Like Manning, the SEC whistleblower saw mixed messages and witnessed wrongdoing and stepped forward and leaked copies of the records.  Until we figure out what is the difference between records and copies of records, this story may go nowhere.  But it seems likely that even if the SEC thought it had deleted the MUIs, there still may be traces that could provide evidence from past investigations.  IT probably has backup tapes (which have been over-written frequently), but the data could be extracted (at great expense).  The question really is: Does SEC Want to preserve all of its agency records?

My guess is: probably not.   My other thought is that there’s an easy answer: post-custodial control.  Agencies need to take responsibility for managing their record, even before they are handed off to an archivist or the NARA.   SEC needs its own department of archivists and records managers and needs a workable strategy and plan with IT for managing their own authentic records.  They also need somebody with a conscience, who is trustworthy enough to deliver accurate records with a life span of 25 years(!) to NARA in a timely fashion.

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