Concerns at A.C.L.U. Over Document Shredding

STEPHANIE STROM 6/5/2005 – The American Civil Liberties Union has been shredding some documents over the repeated objections of its records manager and in conflict with its longstanding policies on the preservation and disposal of records.

The matter has fueled a dispute at the organization over internal operations, one of several such debates over the last couple of years, and has reignited questions over whether the A.C.L.U.’s own practices are consistent with its public positions.

The organization has generally advocated for strong policies on record retention and benefited from them, most recently obtaining and publicizing documents from the government about prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The debate over the use of shredders is reminiscent of one late last year over the organization’s efforts to collect a wide variety of data on its donors, even as it criticizes corporations and government agencies for accumulating personal data as a violation of privacy rights.

Janet Linde, who oversaw the A.C.L.U.’s archives for over a decade until she resigned last month, raised concerns in e-mail messages and memorandums for over two years that officials’ use of shredders in their offices made a mockery of the organization’s policy to supervise document destruction and created potential legal risks.

“It has been shown in many legal cases over the years, including the Enron case, that if a company has an established and documented shredding program they will not be liable if documents at issue in a lawsuit are found to have been destroyed,” Ms. Linde wrote in a 2003 memo. “If, however, the means for unauthorized shredding is present in the office we cannot say that we have made a good faith effort to monitor and document our records disposal process.”

Ms. Linde said she was disturbed that her correspondence had become public and declined to comment further. A spokeswoman for the organization, Emily Whitfield, declined to answer specific questions but made the following statement: “The A.C.L.U.’s records management policies have always been of the highest standards in keeping with, if not more stringent than, those of other nonprofits.”

The organization refused to address which documents were being shredded, among other questions.

Shredding has become more closely controlled after scandals arising from questionable record-keeping have rocked the corporate world.

Congress has amended the criminal code to permit fines and jail sentences for those who alter, destroy, mutilate or conceal documents with the intent of preventing their use in official proceedings. Many lawyers for companies and nonprofit entities have advised their clients to enact strict policies on records management.

The A.C.L.U. allows for document shredding but has policies for recording what is destroyed that predate recent changes in the law, and it has historically placed great emphasis on preserving records. Its policy lists specific types of documents – including duplicate records and outside publications – that can be destroyed without creating a record. For other materials, employees are instructed to contact the archives.

In a speech to the Society of American Archivists last year, Nadine Strossen, the president of the A.C.L.U., said that at its inception in 1920, the civil liberties group arranged for the New York Public Library to archive its records and those of its predecessor organization.

“I’m especially impressed by how prescient the A.C.L.U.’s founders were in understanding the importance of preserving our organizational records,” Ms. Strossen said.

In 2003, the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York gave Ms. Linde an award for her role in helping draft and enact a public records law after Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, moved records from his administration to a private institution.

Under the A.C.L.U.’s policy, employees deposit documents, disks and other files slated for destruction in locked bins in their departments. They are required to complete and sign a form next to the box, describing what they have deposited.

A contractor collects the bins each month and shreds the contents under the watch of an A.C.L.U. records manager, who then countersigns the sheets to confirm the destruction.

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