Data Destruction Reveals Larger Issue with DoD Records Retention
Six weeks ago, The Black Vault broke a story about a potentially unauthorized destruction of data by the Department of Defense (DoD). Throughout numerous Freedom of Information Act cases, it was ultimately determined that more than nine years worth of e-mails, chat transcripts, attachments, appointments, and task listings were destroyed, as created by a former [...] The post Data Destruction Reveals Larger Issue with DoD Records Retention appeared first on The Black Vault.
Six weeks ago, The Black Vault broke a story about a potentially unauthorized destruction of data by the Department of Defense (DoD). Throughout numerous Freedom of Information Act cases, it was ultimately determined that more than nine years worth of e-mails, chat transcripts, attachments, appointments, and task listings were destroyed, as created by a former DoD employee over the course of his career. That employee is Luis Elizondo, a former counter-intelligence agent who has received an enormous amount of media coverage for his story about working on a UFO study for the Pentagon.
Shortly after The Black Vault published that story, the DoD explained further on who they felt was to blame.
And that’s when the story gets more bizarre.
That explanation has remained unpublished, until now, and has revealed a much larger potential problem when it comes to document preservation within the DoD.
Although the deleted e-mails may not seem out of the ordinary to some; it is. Buried within mounds of “records disposition schedules,” documented proof (File Number: 102-12.1) shows that this information should have been retained by the DoD until at least the year 2024, if not, possibly even being mandated to be retained indefinitely. The schedules also make no reference to individual employees being solely responsible for records retention after they resign or leave the department.
According to the official word from the DoD, it’s the employee’s responsibility to adhere to document preservation protocols and do their own data backups. So in this case, that would be Elizondo. However, actual evidence to that fact is non-existent, and when asked, the DoD would not or could not supply it for this article.
When this story first broke, it fueled speculation by the public that this is the most recent tactic by the DoD in a well-orchestrated “smear campaign” to discredit Elizondo and his story. Throughout the past three and a half years, the Pentagon has issued numerous statements calling into question Elizondo’s claims; the program he says he directed; and even Elizondo himself.
Without being able to cite any “authority” that allowed the obliteration of Elizondo’s e-mails, the DoD has finally issued another response to The Black Vault in order to explain what happened.
Yet, that clarity only produced more questions than answers.
The Three Month Journey for Clarity
After OSD FOIA Case 19-F-1903 was closed and the outcome exposed that Elizondo’s files were destroyed, The Black Vault immediately began seeking further clarification. After two months of waiting for those answers, The Black Vault ended the waiting game and decided to publish the original story on May 27, 2021. However, the pursuit for clarity continued thereafter, and a week after publishing, a new letter came on June 3 (despite it being dated May 7).
In a letter from Stephanie L. Carr (signed by Stephen L. Fisher), Chief of the FOIA division within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), they outline what is called a “journaled account,” and describe the process that needs to take place in order for information to be retained for “ten years.” In order to formulate this response to The Black Vault, OSD coordinated with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the “record custodian” of Elizondo’s e-mail box, as they operate the DoD’s Enterprise Email (DEE) system.
“If they left the DoD entirely in 2017 and haven’t used their @mail.mil email since then they (emails) would be gone unless the user was Journaled,” the letter explained. “A Journaled account is an optional DoD Enterprise Email (DEE) service that provides Mission Partners the ability to retain all messages and their attachments sent to and from selected Journaled mailboxes. While not required for all end-users, it is recommended for high ranking and other designated individuals whose email may contain official records which are subject to legal and regulatory requirements. Messages in Journaled accounts are preserved for 10 years.”
In other words, it is up to the employee or individual departments themselves to “journal” their accounts in order to save the data. However, there is one potential problem with the entire explanation given in this instance: it wouldn’t apply. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)
Although DISA operates the technology that allowed Elizondo (and the untold number of other DEE users throughout the DoD) to have e-mail (and gain access to numerous other functions), the rules and procedures set forth for record management by DISA would not overwrite OSD protocols that are in place for their own records.
Although it can get massively confusing, it is indisputable that up until October 4, 2017, Elizondo worked within a component of OSD called the Office of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSD(I)), which was renamed in 2019 to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security (OUSD(I&S)). And as technically an OSD employee prior to his resignation, the numerous “record disposition schedules” written and adhered to by OSD directly, would trump any other agency’s when it came to the preservation of Elizondo’s e-mails.
DISA has their own “records management program” and their procedures are just that, their procedures. And yes, those would dictate how long they would keep a copy of Elizondo’s e-mail box after he retired, and a set of procedures dictate when DISA would delete Elizondo’s files on the DISA operated DEE system. But that would only apply on the DISA operated DEE system and Elizondo’s e-mail box. When it came to the contents of the e-mail box, since they were technically OSD records; OSD’s policies and procedures would apply and trump DISA’s. DISA would be completely authorized to delete the box; OSD would then be dictated by their own schedules on when their copies should/could be wiped out.
To best illustrate proof of this, OSD’s 100 Series schedule outlines specifically e-mails on the DEE system, and how they are to be retained:
If DISA’s policies and procedures applied in this case, than no OSD schedule would exist that outlined the above. Why? Because DISA would manage the records and their retention solely. However, that is not the case as indicated here with documented proof.
As of the writing of this article, and in the months of research that went into it, no DISA program, policy, or procedure was found that showed they were the sole proprietor of records on behalf of any agency and that they would be responsible for each individual agency’s record retention schedule along with adhering to it. That process remains the responsibility of the individual AGENCY itself, and in this case, OSD would be mandated to maintain Elizondo’s emails and contents thereof, until at least 2024.
A Massive Legal, Historical, and Retention Issue Exposed
The discovery of this has now shed light on another potential issue within the record keeping practices of the DoD. That is, despite a written schedule that mandates the preservation of sensitive information, it may not be followed properly and valuable documentation is likely being lost to the delete key.
There is a large public interest in Elizondo’s history with UFOs, and many focus their frustration that the information pertaining to this, and the program known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (or AATIP), is lost for good. However, away from UFOs, Elizondo has a provable history that stretches far beyond unidentified aerial phenomena.
In his resignation letter, Elizondo signed it as the, “Director, National Programs Special Management Staff (NPSMS).” This office, in which very little is known publicly, has become a focal point for The Black Vault to hone in on to attempt to fully understand the scope of it.
First discovered in August of 2019, The Black Vault dug up court transcript documents regarding the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), considered to be the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.
In this 2017 military court transcript, KSM’s attorney David Nevin made reference to the NPSMS, and called them the “SAP Access People.” It appeared by the dialogue between Nevin and the judge presiding over the case, that the NPSMS controlled the Special Access Program (SAP) access for the defense team’s interpreter. That access was required for the interpreter to hold that position, and it was the NPSMS that would orchestrate it.
In another part of the proceedings, a second transcript revealed that, “The NPSMS is the office responsible for administering the special access program for the Office of Military Commissions.”
With the involvement of the NPSMS in this matter, and coupled with the fact that Elizondo was the Director of it, it is likely Elizondo’s e-mails, chat transcripts, calendars, etc., would potentially be legal evidence involved in the still active trial of KSM.
This is just one example from the minimal information that is known about the NPSMS, and it happens to tie into one of the biggest trials that is underway post the 9/11 attacks. If the NPSMS were involved with SAPs, and their objective as an office was to facilitate access to highly sensitive programs, technology, and would communicate extensively about such issues; one would think that is considered “historically significant” and more importantly, a legal concern for preservation, in case it played a role in a legal proceeding as evidence.
However, this issue may stretch beyond just Elizondo’s e-mails and calendars. The confusion, and lack of clarity, when dealing with records retention is alarming. There are extensive schedules written by OSD that outline how, and why, records are kept and for how long. Yet, it appears these are not being followed, since no one in the FOIA office, nor the office of public affairs for OSD, could cite any reasonable “authority” to destroy these records.
It begs to ask the question, how much more is being lost?
Over the course of the past five weeks, The Black Vault attempted to get additional information about this issue from the Public Affairs office within the DoD by writing Susan Gough, a Pentagon spokesperson who has been tasked to answer all questions about Elizondo, UAPs, and related matters.
The first attempt was on June 7, 2021, and over the course of five weeks, The Black Vault sent six follow-ups regarding this issue, and although some were acknowledged with claims information would be forthcoming, nothing ever came.
The last attempt was on July 14, just days prior to this article being published. This was a last attempt which outlined to the DoD that the story was moving forward; it would be published by the end of the week; and it was stated exactly what was being reported to ensure that if there was any inaccuracy or misinterpretation, it could be corrected prior to publishing.
The final follow-up stated the following:
I am going to just go ahead and finish this final article update on this issue. I’ve waited some time to add any additional comment or supply additional information as, but understand if OSD does not want to add any additional information or comment.
I just can’t find any supporting documentation about the deletion of emails, and the responsibility of the employee to do it, which seems to be the stance I received from the FOIA team.
I feel the story here is just that, the confusion about records retention and the loss of potentially important documentation. To know that Luis Elizondo’s position would be actively engaged in situations like the trial of KSM, it’s hard to believe that stuff is wiped out if he doesn’t appropriately push a button. As an advocate for preservation and transparency (in that order), it’s a bit of a concern that if information is destroyed that easily, what else may be being lost?
I am in no way trying to paint any one, or any agency, in a bad light. Rather, I’d like to shed light on a story I feel is very important, hence why I have politely pushed for answers from you to ensure accuracy on this.
I appreciate any last minute clarity on this. I have the FOIA office’s letter of approved language from before, but just want to make sure if I publish that with the interpretation that employees are to blame if disposition schedules are not followed, that I am not going against what any updated official stance is on this (or related) matters.
Thank you so much for your time. I publish Friday morning.”
As of the writing of this article, no response or even acknowledgement ever came.
This saga, and this story, is the culmination of years worth of work by The Black Vault. Although the intent was to seek out information about Elizondo and his connection to UAPs over the course of eight different FOIA cases; what was revealed was an even bigger issue about document preservation, destruction, and the lack of adherence to a set of published protocols to ensure information is properly saved.
There are numerous questions that were posed throughout the past few months, with no answers being given. This would include:
- If an individual employee is responsible for document preservation, where is that outlined in the record disposition schedules?
- Why are DISA schedules being cited, when clearly OSD schedules outline specifically e-mails from a DEE system, and how they are supposed to be retained?
- What are the repercussions for an employee “not adhering” to the protocols to backup their own work?
- Is there ANY oversight to the long list of DoD personnel that have varying schedules they need to adhere to?
- What happens if a person leaves the department abruptly? There is no team there to ensure their information is properly saved to adhere to schedules?
- How many other employees/personnel are not properly adhering to schedules, and how much data is truly being lost?
Multiple FOIA requests were filed to seek out some of the answers to the above. However, the alarming issue, is the above should be able to be addressed quickly or in a somewhat timely manner. Instead, no one The Black Vault reached out to, could contribute anything beyond the written and approved statements above. And with documented proof, it appears that those explanations that took months to get, would not even apply in this situation.
This article is published with hopes that someone, somewhere, will see the importance of this issue, and take note that the historical information and even legal evidence is being lost.
To what extent? It seems that likely… no one really knows.
Luis Elizondo was unavailable for comment for this article.
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