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CIA tackles records nightmare

Federal Computer Week

April 20, 2000
Web posted at: 9:13 a.m. EDT (1313 GMT)

(IDG) -- The CIA has embarked upon an agencywide data standardization and systems integration effort after a report by the National Archives and Records Administration found severe weaknesses in the agency's program for preserving key government records.

Despite the CIA's long history of collecting vast amounts of information with great alacrity, its recordkeeping practices and policies have lagged behind and now threaten the preservation of information that one day may be of historical significance, according to the NARA CIA records management report.

Released last month, the report concluded that the CIA's overall records management program has "serious shortcomings," creating "a serious risk that information of great value will not be preserved."

A spokesperson for the agency, however, said efforts are under way to standardize how information is managed throughout the agency, which will produce a "knowledge management repository" capable of streamlining the process of transferring official records to NARA.

Nevertheless, the agency has responded to the NARA evaluation with a comprehensive plan for integrating all of its information systems and standardizing the way data is created and stored.

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"We have developed an agencywide taxonomy to uniformly catalog information," an agency spokeswoman said. The new taxonomy includes tracking mechanisms for document originator, access control and disposition, she said.

The CIA has also developed a meta-data standard that applies to content, ownership, distribution, sensitivity and disposition. Eventually, all agency information systems will be forced to comply with the new standard, the spokeswoman said. A meta data registry also is in development that will ensure system compliance, and a companion meta data repository will enable users to conduct enterprisewide searches.

Major Changes Afoot

The CIA has also developed several new systems that promise, according to the NARA report, to "change agency recordkeeping in major ways."

One of those new systems is called the Proactive Electronic Records Management system. According to the spokeswoman, deployment of PERM will be completed by 2002 and will facilitate the capture and organization of electronic records originated at the desktop.

The Space Management and Retirement Tracking system, also under development, will track hard-copy records at the desktop, folder and document levels. SMART will use a bar code system to automate document control.

In an effort to better manage official release programs, such as Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional inquiries, the CIA has developed the Management of Officially Released Information (MORI) system.

The project stemmed from a task force formed in 1994 to look into problems the agency had in locating releasable information in a timely manner. Information already entered into MORI includes data on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the exposure of U.S. troops to toxic agents in the Gulf War.

The CIA spokeswoman also said the agency has started a process to certify each of its electronic systems as an Electronic Record Keeping System. ERKS is a subset of policies and technical specifications managed by NARA that govern the design of electronic recordkeeping systems.

"It is important to acknowledge that CIA hasn't totally neglected the issue [of records management]," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.

"CIA is probably not doing a worse job of records management than other agencies, but it ought to be doing considerably better," he said. "After all, the task of information management is essential to intelligence production. If the agency can't get this right, it is wasting its time and our money."

Pump up the Volume

NARA, which oversees the management of all federal records, is authorized by law to inspect the records management programs of federal agencies and recommend improvements. CIA records are of particular concern to NARA because the volume of permanent records at the agency is higher than at most federal agencies.

Part of the CIA's problem, according to the NARA report, has been the agency's failure to schedule many of the most important CIA records such as the President's Daily Brief and related feedback notes and files pertaining to covert operations for transfer to NARA.

In addition, current systems do not reflect the fact that many of the electronic records created today were once produced solely in paper format. The gap in scheduling caused NARA to characterize its own holding of agency records as "negligible."

NARA found other problems as well. CIA staffers are not provided follow-up training in records management after their initial training, the report stated.

As a result, NARA evaluators found an inconsistent understanding of basic and important records management concepts across the agency. In addition, records at some CIA offices are not closely tracked and sometimes cannot be located, according to the report.

NARA also discovered that an alarming number of files from as far back as the 1950s are still stored at the Agency Records Center on "inherently unstable media," such as thermofax copies and mimeographs. NARA urged the agency to turn the documents over well before it is required to, in order to ensure their preservation.



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