This article is a response to an article written by blogger Butterdezillion titled: The Whopper that Got Away. Before I begin my comments on the article, I want to say a few words about Butterdezillion. I’ve seen some comments on this blog about Butterdezillion that I don’t think are fair or accurate. In my view, there is no more diligent and tenacious researcher in his Obama Conspiracy business than Butterdezillion. Her contribution to the information store of we work from should not be underestimated. I think Butterdezillion gets it wrong because of confirmation bias and the fallacy that is sometimes phrased “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” This last fallacy came into play the last time Butterdezillion and I tangled on the bogosphere. She had assumed that the State of Hawaii was keeping material secret because she couldn’t find it on the Internet (the information actually was on the Internet). That same issue will come into play in this article.
Readers here may recall that the US Department of State responded to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Christopher Strunk for passport applications from Barack Obama’s mother. There is a reference in those records to a passport application in 1965, but the 1965 record itself could not be found. According to the State Department documents and an affidavit from the official in charge, routine passport records for the period including 1965 and earlier had been destroyed as part of a program to reduce the cost of storage.
Butterdezillion, in her article, The Whopper that Got Away, alleges that the record destruction is a myth concocted by the State Department to cover up bad things about Barack Obama. This sounds fantastic on the surface. Why would the State Department make up a story about purging 125,000,000 records, when it would have been easier to just not find or alter the one record? The story requires creating a fake State Department document from 1985, one with the names of ten State Department officials who worked on it, that was supposedly circulated to every diplomatic and consular post in the whole world! It requires perjury committed a federal official in a federal lawsuit. For Butterdezillion’s theory to be true everybody must be lying, but pointing out the obvious implausibility of such a theory is not the point of this article. This article is about the argument Butterdezillion makes to support her theory.
The argument is two-fold. First, she alleges that it would be physically impossible to cull 125,000,000 records with the staff available and within the time claimed by contemporaneous documents about the records destruction. The second argument is that the records could not have been destroyed without certain notification appearing on certain federal web sites, notifications that exist for other changes in records retention policy. (If you want to look at the retention schedules, visit this web site of the national archives).
We know that the State Department claims to have culled passport applications from 1925 – 1961 between June 1984 and February 1985 with 40 staff members, according to an internal State Department Memo (see last 3 pages of document). According to a GAO report, the records were not separated as to type; records that were to be destroyed were filed with records that were to be retained. Butterdezillion came up with processing time of about 2 seconds per record. While Butterdezillion doesn’t detail the calculation, the number isn’t much different from what I got, so I’ll use her number.
Based on GAO estimates, the number of records to be retained was about 3% of the total. I envision a worker sitting at a desk with a stack of several hundred application forms and a box of rubber thumbs going through them (the records, not the thumbs) and picking out one in 33 to retain. You can do the experiment with a stack of paper yourself, assuming you have a rubber thumb, and I think you will conclude that it is possible to do a sheet every couple of seconds (two seconds is really a long time if you think about it). Also note that the staff numbers were described as approximate and we don’t know about overtime.
The second part of the argument is there is no independent record of the authorization to destroy the records. Here is where Butterdezillion really presents some good documentation of archived records retention requests from the 70’s and 80’s and records schedule legislation at the National Archives. I was impressed. She showed various documents before and after 1984 regarding the destruction of passport applications, but nothing about the project in the State Department memo from 1985 (links to various documents found are in her article).
Spurred by the belief that Butterdezillion’s thesis was wildly implausible, I dug further and I came across a GAO report from August 6, 1981 titled Management of the Department of State Office of Passport Services Needs To Be Improved that confirmed that the GAO was indeed pressuring the Department of State to dispose of the records. The action described in the Department of State memo matches the GAO recommendations for a 15-year retention of the paper applications from 1925 until microfilming began in 1978. The GAO report includes the approval of the United States Archivist for the records destruction. While the actual records disposition paperwork from 1984 has not been found, this independent GAO report, the contemporary document from the Department of State, and the testimony of a federal official from personal knowledge all combine to confirm that indeed the Department of State purged passport applications for native born citizens between 1925 and the first half of 1978. Also note that prior to a change in the legislation in October of 1984, it was the GAO, not the National Archivist, who was responsible for deciding that records could be destroyed.
There are two passport applications from 1925 until 1978 that are known to have survived, one referenced in an affidavit by a private investigator (Phil Jacobsen) in the Strunk case (Strunk also is rejecting the thesis that the records have been destroyed) and, interestingly enough, a renewal application by Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro herself. Jacobsen’s affidavit is really sworn and notarized, and so I take it much more seriously than those that are not. The passport application copy itself is not included, and one would certainly want to see it before saying too much about it. Obvious questions are whether the record is one that was to be retained under the guidelines, and whether the document is an original or a microfilmed copy. The Dunham/Soetoro application is however, available. I want to think a bit more on that one.
Since Strunk presents the same basic material as Butterdezillion in his objection to concluding his lawsuit, we can expect a more authoritative response from the Department of State that will likely clear up any loose ends.