Published in The Opinion Pages of The New York Times .
HISTORY will be the judge: That’s the line leaders often use when making difficult decisions. Historians, after all, have the benefit of hindsight and archives full of once-secret files. But how will history judge a generation of leaders who don’t preserve the historical record?
The revelation on Monday that Hillary Rodham Clinton used only a personal email account when she was secretary of state and did not preserve her emails on departmental servers seems to reflect a troubling indifference to saving the history she was living. Mrs. Clinton’s aides eventually turned over 55,000 pages of correspondence. But the State Department’s Office of the Historian estimates that the department produces two billion emails a year.
Even if she had dutifully archived all her correspondence, future Americans still might not have learned much about the Arab Spring or Iran’s nuclear program. The bigger problem is that the government produces an astounding volume of email, much of it classified, and the public doesn’t get to see it unless archivists can preserve and process it.
This is a problem for the entire federal government, as we should have realized when the Internal Revenue Service could not produce even very recent emails to answer a congressional inquiry in 2014. While archiving email presents a technical challenge to the federal government, the Obama administration, to its credit, has ordered that all electronic records be managed digitally by 2019, including records that, in the past, departments would have printed out before sending to the National Archives and Records Administration. That organization itself is already overwhelmed with unprocessed paper records dating from the Cold War.