Can the U.S. Embassy in Cairo Delete Tweets?

September 11th, 2012

The US Embassy in Cairo tonight deleted several tweets from its Twitter account. Can the government simply delete tweets?

Generally, all government records are property of the Federal Government, and can only be disposed of in accordance with44 U.S.C. 33 Section 3302.

§ 3302. Regulations covering lists of records for disposal, procedure for disposal, and standards for reproduction

The Archivist shall promulgate regulations, not inconsistent with this chapter, establishing–

(1) procedures for the compiling and submitting to him of lists and schedules of records proposed for disposal,

(2) procedures for the disposal of records authorized for disposal, and

(3) standards for the reproduction of records by photographic or microphotographic processes with a view to the disposal of the original records.

I don’t know whether any court has ever considered the issue, but the definition of a “record” is quite broad under 44 USC 33 Section 3301:

As used in this chapter, “records” includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of data in them. Library and museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for reference or exhibition purposes, extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference, and stocks of publications and of processed documents are not included.

It would seem that the tweets in question would be “machine readable materials” connected with the “transaction of public business.”

The US Embassy most certainly did not comply with any procedures before deleting these tweets. This should be interesting.

Update: Another provision of the law provides that records can be destroyed immediately if they pose a “menace to health, life, or property”:

§ 3310. Disposal of records constituting menace to health, life, or property

When the Archivist and the head of the agency that has custody of them jointly determine that records in the custody of an agency of the United States Government are a continuing menace to human health or life or to property, the Archivist shall eliminate the menace immediately by any method he considers necessary. When records in the custody of the Archivist are disposed of under this section, the Archivist shall report their disposal to the agency from which they were transferred.

I suppose this would mean that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, if she determined that the tweet was a menace to life (whatever that means), she could authorize the deletion. I wonder if that was in fact what happened?

Update: It turns out the Tweet was from a high-ranking official in the Embassy, who issued it even though the State Department told him not to!

But Obama’s remarks belie the enormous frustration of top officials at the State Department and White House with the actions of the man behind the statement, Cairo senior public affairs officerLarry Schwartz, who wrote the release and oversees the embassy’s Twitter feed, according to a detailed account of the Tuesday’s events.

The official noted that the statement was posted at exactly 12:18 p.m. Cairo time — 6:18 a.m. Washington time — well before the protests began. Romney has said, wrongly, that the statement was the administration’s first response to the protests, but the official said that the demonstrations did not begin until 4 p.m. Cairo time and protesters breached the wall about 2 hours later.

After the breach, as public criticism of the statement grew, the Cairo Embassy Twitter accountcontinued to send out tweets defending it, some of which were later deleted. One deleted tweet, originally posted at 12:30 a.m. Cairo time, said, “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”

Before issuing the press release, Schwartz cleared it with just one person senior to himself, Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the charge d’affaires at the embassy on Tuesday because Ambassador Anne Patterson was in Washington at the time, the official said.

Schwartz sent the statement to the State Department in Washington before publishing and the State Department directed him not to post it without changes, but Schwartz posted it anyway.

“The statement was not cleared with anyone in Washington. It was sent as ‘This is what we are putting out,'” the official said. “We replied and said this was not a good statement and that it needed major revisions. The next email we received from Embassy Cairo was ‘We just put this out.'”

For now Schwartz still has his job:

Despite his disregard of Washington’s instructions and his actions throughout the day Tuesday, Schwartz has not yet been disciplined in any way and is still the lead public affairs officer at the embassy.

“He remains at post at the same capacity as he was,” the official said.

H/T Outside The Beltway