Christopher Strunk filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for passport applications of President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. He received his results and they were, to say the least, disappointing. One side wants to see that she had a passport in 1961 that would have enabled her to travel to Africa for the birth of Barack Obama, and the other side wants to see that she had none, and couldn’t have made the trip. The Department of State says that passport applications for 1925 to 1965 have been destroyed as part of a cost cutting move. All we got was a reference to an application from 1965, but not the application itself.
I have speculated here that my FOIA, which like Strunk’s asked for Stanley Ann Dunham’s passport records, may yield different results because while Strunk asked for “passport applications”, I asked for “passports issued.” I reasoned that surely the Department of State keeps records of passports issued distinct from the applications.
Apparently I was right. While researching the background of the destruction of the passport applications, and the “pressure” (according to a State Department internal memo released to Strunk) to reduce storage costs, 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.
Chapter 4 of the report deals with the costs of record retention and the argument made by the Department of State for longer retention periods. State argued that a passport application might provide proof of the citizenship of the parent of a child born overseas (and hence evidence of the child’s citizenship). The GAO countered that persons born after 1925 could obtain birth certificates from state and local sources, and that in any case:
Should the Department need to verify if a parent was ever issued a passport, old passport issue cards have been microfilmed and can be referenced by the Department.
Document page 30, PDF page 44
That is, in the year immediately prior to the commencement of the passport application destruction project in 1982, there existed a card file of passports issued, on microfilm, for records from 1925 on.
I think the background in this 1981 GAO report should lay to rest any questions about the passport destruction project for old passport applications. There remains the fact that the records disposition forms for the passport application destruction have not been located in the national archives so far. However, the statute in force in 1981 (44 U.S.C. Chapter 33, § 3303) made the Administrator of the GAO responsible for approving record destruction (changed in 1984 to the National Archivist) and clearly the GAO was all for it. The National Archivist agreed, saying:
…passport application file records except for federally issued vital records ‘* * * are disposable because they do not have sufficient value for purposes of historical or other research, functional documentation or protection of individual rights to warrant permanent retention by the Federal Government.”
The GAO report recommended that the Secretary of State:
- initiate a project to separate permanent records from disposable passport records,
- adjust the retention schedule from 100 years to 15 years for disposable passport records originating from 1925 to the first half of 1978, and
- adjust the retention schedule for disposable passport records that have been microfilmed from 15 years to the validity period of a passport.