A proposal by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to delete the e-mails of all but its top 22 employees three years after they leave the agency has created a firestorm of opposition, as members of Congress and open government groups have called on the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to reconsider approving the plan.
“We are concerned that this policy would undermine the ability of citizens to understand how their government works and hold it accountable,” wrote Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) in a Dec. 1 letter to NARA. “In an era when critically important government activities and decisions are conducted via email, a plan to delete the majority of emails at any agency should raise great concern.”
In a Nov. 3 letter to NARA, a group of 17 public interest groups wrote: “We believe the proposal could be interpreted to allow the destruction of crucial documentary evidence regarding the CIA’s activities before Congress, the public, or the courts have any opportunity to access them.” The letter went on to say, “It calls for preservation of too few officials’ emails, for too short a period. It leaves too many key terms undefined, and relies too heavily on the CIA’s good faith instead of NARA’s own careful appraisal of CIA recordkeeping.”
The groups contend that the CIA first sent this proposed schedule to NARA on January 22, 2014, in the midst of a dispute with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the propriety of the Senate’s access to CIA documents popularly known as the “Panetta Review.”
NARA had tentatively backed the proposal to destroy the staff e-mails in an Aug. 18 memo to the CIA, arguing that any important communications will likely exist in other formats that will be catalogued for a permanent record. However, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disagreed with that rationale. “In our experience, email messages are essential to finding CIA records that may not exist in other so-called permanent records at the CIA,” the two wrote in a Nov. 17 letter to NARA.
As a result of the intense public opposition, NARA said it is now reassessing the CIA’s proposal. “Based on comments from Members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a number of public interest groups, we are concerned about the scope of the proposed schedule and the proposed retention periods,” wrote Paul Wester, NARA’s chief records officer, in a Nov. 20 letter to the CIA.
“Because we are concerned about the relationship between this proposed schedule and the disposition of email records in other agencies within the Intelligence Community, we will also reach out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to discuss the broader implications of the Capstone approach within the community,” Wester continued.
Capstone is a new records management approach proposed by NARA for managing agency federal record e-mails electronically. While implementation is not required by law, according to the agency, Capstone provides a more simplified and automated approach to managing e-mail, as opposed to using either print and file systems or records management applications that require staff to file e-mail records individually.