Unauthorized Destruction

These are two words that records managers never want to hear. An unauthorized destruction occurs when records are destroyed or deleted in any of the following cases:

  1. Without an approved disposition;
  2. When the record has been approved for permanent retention;
  3. Prior to the end of the approved retention period (unless order by a court);
  4. When the record is subject to another requirement (e.g. FOIA, litigation) to retain the record.

NARA and agencies are responsible for preventing the unauthorized disposition of Federal records, including their unlawful or accidental destruction, deletion, alteration, or removal from Federal custody. Agencies should carefully monitor the implementation of approved records schedules to prevent such unauthorized destruction.

When an agency becomes aware of an incident of unauthorized destruction, they must report the incident to us. The report should describe the records, the circumstances in which the unauthorized destruction took place, and the corrective steps being taken to properly manage the records in the future. If we hear about the incident before the agency has reported it, we will notify the agency and request similar information.

The goal of this process is to ensure that circumstances that may have led to the loss of Federal records are corrected and do not repeat. As a result, agencies are better able to ensure that they protect and manage their records.

Our regulations at 36 CFR 1230 describe this process in detail including how agencies should go about reporting such instances and how we handle allegations of damage, alienation, or unlawful destruction of records. A recent example of this process was the Department of Justice’s handling of e-mail messages maintained by the Office of Legal Counsel. Newsweek reported on this story; here is the report to us from the Justice Department (.pdf) and here is our response to their report (.pdf).