The appraisal of FBI records: Random destruction of evidence or statistically valid sampling method?



With “over six million criminal, civil, security, applicant and administrative case files” (Bradsher 1988, 53) in 1979, the FBI faced not only the challenges of determining which files are culturally and historically significant and which should be retained for legal liability purposes, but a more mundane problem faced regularly by Archives; the problem of space. The National Archives and Records Administration developed a new approach to appraising records based on a combination of historical methods, theories and approaches. Is the final result a valid approach to appraisal?


On December 7, 2007 the front page of the New York Times reads “C.I.A. Destroyed 2 Tapes Showing Interrogations”, a headline that is part of the ongoing contemporary conversation about the definition of torture, the U.S. national struggle with our involvement in Iraq, and the upcoming Presidential elections. If these visual records still existed, they could increase the attention the United States pays to the issue of torture and offer powerful images to the discussion of whether the term “torture” or “severe interrogation technique” should be used when referring to activities such as waterboarding – an interrogation process most Americans have little experience with and could hardly imagine.

These records could also have been used for legal accountability, holding the interrogators and their supervisors legally liable for the actions depicted in the video, if those actions are subsequently judged to fall under the definition of torture. The destruction of the tapes could serve to protect the identity of the operatives to protect them from personal harm by groups or individuals opposed to the United States, or to avoid the political and legal liabilities mentioned above. The destruction of these tapes, and the legal admission of that destruction by General Michael Hayden, underscores the importance of government records, the need to retain and preserve those records for use, and the need to provide access to records where appropriate or possible.

With “over six million criminal, civil, security, applicant and administrative case files” (Bradsher 1988, 53) in 1979, the FBI faced not only the challenges listed above, but a problem faced regularly by Archives; the problem of space. The case titled American Friends Service Committee v. Webster was brought in 1979 by 11 civil liberties, religious, peace, and historical organizations and forty individuals against the FBI and the National Archives. The lawsuit accused the FBI of destroying valuable records with the consent of the National Archives and Records Administration (at that time known as the National Archives and Records Service or NARS). Judge Harold H. Greene responded to the suit by imposing a ban on the further destruction of any FBI records until the NARA had appraised the records and determined which records should be kept and which should be destroyed.

The historical and theoretical basis of the sampling approach applied by NARA to the records of the FBI can be found in a combination of appraisal historically significant theories and methods; from Jenkinson and Schellenberg to macroappraisal and documentation strategy. Each is a tool appropriate for different reasons, and has some influence on the approach the NARA decided to take in appraising the FBI records. Hilary Jenkinson saw the role of the archivist as a “keeper”, someone entrusted by society to maintain the records of organizations and individuals as they were maintained by those individuals. “We find the conclusion unavoidable that destruction is an operation which can only be practiced with undoubted safety in one case – that of word-for-word duplicates: all other proposed criteria are fallacious; and in any case there is great difficulty in finding suitable persons to carry them out.” (Jenkinson 1937, 147)

Schellenberg posited the ideas of primary and secondary value upon which much of appraisal theory has been based; primary value indicates the value derived by the creator in the use of the records in the conduct of business and secondary value refers to the use of the records for research and historical purposes.

Macroappraisal is another method to approach appraisal which combines an analysis of the structural-functional roles of the organization and the culture of the organization in order to determine which records to retain. “Macroappraisal assesses the societal value of both the functional-structural context and work-place culture in which the records are created and used by their creator(s), and the interrelationship of citizens, groups, organizations – “the public” – with that functional-structural context.” (Cook 2005, 101)

Describing three steps in documentation strategy, Helen Samuels writes “an analysis of the universe to be documented, an understanding of the inherent documentary problems, and the formulation of a plan to ensure the adequate documentation of an ongoing issue or activity or geographic region” (Samuels 1991, 126). Documentation Strategy includes an appraisal process based on functional analysis of an organization. This analysis prioritizes the functions within the organization to determine the likelihood that that particular function will produced records of enduring historical value.

While the effort asserted to determine the least harmful way to destroy the FBI records was admirable, there were some problems with the process. To begin with, the appraisal method used does not represent an outside review of the value of the records. Since the lawsuit was filed against the NARA and the FBI, it makes little sense to have the NARA work to appraise the records and establish a schedule, given their named status in a suit alleging that the FBI was willfully destroying records of value with the consent of the NARA.

The project was also charged with an unclear mission. Throughout various reports on the court documents and criticisms of the process, at least three goals were listed for the appraisal; identify records of research value, identify records that contain evidence of process for the historical record, and identify records that indicate evidence of conduct to be used for legal accountability purposes. These three goals are often at odds; a representative sample will adequately portray the functioning of the FBI, but there exists a high probability that the records of the investigation into a particular individual will be destroyed.

In addition, the benefit of sampling from a population is the ability to repeat the sample to test for validity. This repetition allows for other researchers operating under different constraints or with different questions to verify the validity of the original sample. If the records that are not included in the sample are destroyed, the sampling method and therefore the results cannot be verified.