record-retention standards and procedures are established would not impose an injury on defendants outweighing the harm done to plaintiffs from a failure to grant relief.
That leaves for consideration the public interest. Congress has determined that federal record-keeping shall accommodate not only the operational and administrative needs of the particular agencies but also the right of the people of this nation to know what their government has been doing.
The thrust of the laws Congress has enacted is that governmental records belong to the American people and should be accessible to them barring security and privacy considerations for legitimate historical and other research purposes. The thrust of the actions of the FBI, perhaps naturally so, has been to preserve what is necessary or useful for its operations. The Archives, which should have safeguarded the interests of both the FBI and the public, in practice considered only the former.
Yet the congressional mandate has special relevancy to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Its files, perhaps more than those of any other agency, constitute a significant repository of the record of the recent history of this nation, and they represent the work product of an organization that has touched the lives of countless Americans. Many of these have been in public life, others have achieved fame or notoriety of a different sort, still others have merely been the subject of routine investigations (security checks, suspected criminality, or inquiries into background or character). The files of such an agency contain far more of the raw materials of history and research and far more data pertaining to the rights of citizens than do the files of bureaus with more pedestrian mandates. The public interest demands that great care be taken before such records are committed to destruction.
According to the statutory mandate, basic decisions concerning the preservation and destruction of government documents are to be made by the impartial professionals of the Archives. The evidence shows that this mandate is not being carried out, and the public interest demands the entry of a court order halting further destructions until a plan has been devised that meets the congressional directive.
The grant of such relief will serve not merely the technical function of compelling compliance with the various records management laws; it will guarantee that records will not be destroyed until qualified historians and archivists have had a chance to sort them out so as to ascertain which ones are of genuine historical value and which ones may be disposed of without damage to anyone.
Some, or many, of the FBI's records presently destined for disposal deserve to be preserved, not only for the benefit of plaintiffs and others like them but as part of the national heritage. George Santayana taught us that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The lessons of history can hardly be learned if the historical record is allowed to vanish.
It is obviously impossible to identify with precision every document which may at some time in the future be of interest to a scholar, journalist, historian, or other person with a legitimate claim to access. But it is not impossible to identify in broad terms what records are likely to be of such value, nor should it be impossible to do so in a way that does not amount for a forfeit of the statutory responsibility of the Archives. That agency might, for example, designate those categories of records within the FBI's classification system which have obvious historical value, for preservation in toto.
With respect to other categories, records might be preserved on a more selective basis.
Still other categories of records might be marked for disposal after Archives personnel become convinced, following a personal inspection of typical files, that they lack special historical or other value.
The precise means for achieving an adequate record retention system cannot be prescribed by the Court nor should its formulation, as in the past, be left essentially to the FBI. Under the law, it is the Archivist who is charged with the responsibility for the records preservation program of the United States. He and his staff, or other professionals retained on a consulting basis, must, in the first instance, establish an appropriate program. The individuals engaged in this work should be familiar with the historical context in which the documents were generated, they should be conversant with current and expected demands for records for legitimate purposes, and they should understand the FBI's method of operation and its system of keeping records. Needless to say, these persons should have access to the FBI's files.
A preliminary injunction issued this date requires the Archivist and his staff, with the assistance of the FBI, to formulate a retention plan for FBI records meeting the statutory standard as interpreted herein, and it requires the FBI to formulate records control schedules consistently with that plan. The plan and the schedules should be submitted to the Court for its approval within ninety days hereof. In any event, until such submission has been made, any further destruction of FBI records will have to be halted, and the injunction so provides. Upon approval by the Court of the plan and schedules, that injunction will be lifted.