President Donald Trump’s penchant for hiding the truth poses a threat to the United States that many people haven’t considered, Dr. Matthew Connelly, a history professor at Columbia University, wrote in an op-ed published on February 4 in The New York Times. “Vital information is actually being deleted or destroyed, so that no one—neither the press and government watchdogs today, nor historians tomorrow—will have a chance to see it,” he writes.
Part of being an archivist, according to Connelly, involves predicting “what records future historians will judge to be truly significant.” Official records deemed “historic” are preserved, while “temporary” records can be destroyed. Connelly says that archivists at The National Archives have allowed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to delete evidence of immigrant deaths and sexual abuse at the southern border. He writes:
In 2017, a normally routine document released by the archives, a records retention schedule, revealed that archivists had agreed that officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could delete or destroy documents detailing the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants. Tens of thousands of people posted critical comments, and dozens of senators and representatives objected. The National Archives made some changes to the plan, but last month it announced that ICE could go ahead and start destroying records from Mr. Trump’s first year, including detainees’ complaints about civil rights violations and shoddy medical care.
Connelly notes that ICE isn’t the only agency given a green light from the National Archives to delete parts of history:
The U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Archives have decided to delete files on endangered species, offshore drilling inspections and the safety of drinking water. The department even claimed that papers from a case where it mismanaged Native American land and assets—resulting in a multibillion-dollar legal settlement—would be of no interest to future historians (or anyone else).
Virtually all the papers of the under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment are also being designated as “temporary,” despite the incredibly broad responsibilities of that office—from international aviation safety to foreign takeovers of American firms.
The U.S. Department of State is now moving to cut the National Archives completely out of the records retention process, according to Connelly. “Instead,” he writes, it will start using machine learning algorithms to separate the "historic" from the "temporary." In the future, he says, records won’t be shared with the National Archives at all, which is a violation of the Federal Records Act. Connelly says of this shift:
And so far there has been no public acknowledgment or discussion of this plan. When a group of concerned historians met with Archives senior staff members, they did not even seem to be aware of it.
Connelly worries that getting rid of the historical record instead of preserving it for future generations will stop people from learning crucial lessons. “When politicians, caught committing malfeasance, claim that they will let future historians judge, you can’t possibly believe them,” he writes.
Click here to read Connelly’s op-ed in its entirety.