SAA Should Say Something!

by Frank Boles, Chair, SAA Committe on Advocacy and Public Policy

Public policy issues are frequent topics of conversation among SAA members. Moving from concern to a position adopted by the SAA Council can be a time-consuming task, and one in which deliberation and information gathering plays a critical role. The following case study provides a glimpse into how public policy concerns expressed by members are evaluated and considered for comment and action.

Edward Snowden began leaking classified information about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs in June 2013. His disclosures fueled debates about mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.

Within SAA, members of the Issues and Advocacy and Privacy and Confidentiality roundtables were deeply troubled. On April 30, 2014, the leaders of the two roundtables shared a thoughtful document with the SAA Council expressing their concerns about government secrecy and citizens’ rights and their hope that SAA would consider taking action. The April 30 memo identified fifteen issues and recommended that SAA conduct a comprehensive and detailed study into the NSA Mass Surveillance Program. The Council asked the Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy (CAPP) to review the memo and prepare a response for the Council to consider at its May 22–24 meeting.

With a relatively short time to evaluate the April 30 document, CAPP’s touchstones were to 1) compare the concerns raised by the memo with the SAA Advocacy Agenda1 and 2) consider the unique expertise that archivists could bring to the discussion. CAPP wrote to the Council:

Acknowledging that all of the issues identified by the two roundtables are important public policy matters, CAPP recommends that the SAA Council concentrate instead on records scheduling, a topic uniquely relevant to the archival profession.

Without denying the importance of the issues raised by the two roundtables, CAPP recommended that SAA speak to those specific issues on which archivists could offer unique insight. Thus:

... Appraisal will be the key to developing schedules. Three appraisal questions for study are:

  • What is the administrative value of NSA Surveillance Program records? 
  • What is the legal value of the records, given their use by citizens to protect rights? 
  • Do the records hold value as a historical resource? Large, undifferentiated masses of raw personal communications (such as Congressional case files) have proven to be of little value in this regard.

The Council accepted CAPP’s recommendations and directed that it work with the leaders of the Issues and Advocacy and Privacy and Confidentiality roundtables to examine these issues. An ad hoc working group was quickly established to draft a document for discussion at the roundtables’ annual meetings in Washington, DC, in August. The draft concluded that the material gathered by the NSA likely met the threshold for definition as “federal records” and recommended a wide-ranging professional discussion regarding appraisal of the material. Roundtable members who discussed the document in Washington generally accepted the conclusions as a reasonable approach.

Having consulted with the membership, CAPP then turned to the true experts on the matter. The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) External Affairs Liaison and Chief Records Officer of the United States, as well as the NARA staff members who are directly responsible for appraising NSA material, met with CAPP members via teleconference. The conversation was startling—and reassuring.

On the matter of appraisal, NARA staff explained that the data being collected by NSA is classified as “raw signal intelligence.” Both congressional legislation and administrative order define “raw signal intelligence” as a nonpermanent, federal record. It will be destroyed. Throughout our conversation the NARA staff demonstrated a high degree of awareness of the situation and a mastery of federal law and regulations (and were gracious enough not to point out that a lot of work and anxiety could have been avoided if we had talked to them in the first place!).

We on CAPP realized that unless we recommended that SAA advocate for changing both administrative practice and legislative authority, the matter was settled. We decided not to make such a recommendation to the Council. Despite its possible uses, there were good reasons why raw signal intelligence should not be permanently retained.

SAA is a federation of archivists who are interested in archives—not a public advocacy group. Certainly archives and public policy inevitably come together when record legislation or public policy issues affecting privacy or access are discussed, but SAA does not exist primarily to address these issues, much less the wide range of other public policy issues that may be of interest to our members.

Our exploration of the public policy issues involved in NSA data collection illustrates how SAA can and does use an archival lens, and its own Advocacy Agenda, to arrive at a considered response to a specific—archival—issue.

It was a long trip from the roundtables’ original memo in April to CAPP’s recommendation to the Council in November, but it’s a journey that illustrates how concern about a political issue is raised, focused, and ultimately resolved within SAA. For more information about how to suggest that SAA take action on a public policy issue, see



As published in the January/February 2015 issue of Archival Outlook

Learn more about CAPP

View the SAA Advocacy Agenda