A CIA plan to erase tens of thousands of its internal emails — including those sent by virtually all covert and counterterrorism officers after they leave the agency — is drawing fire from Senate Intelligence Committee members concerned that it would wipe out key records of some of the agency’s most controversial operations. The agency proposal, which has been tentatively approved by the National Archives, “could allow for the destruction of crucial documentary evidence regarding the CIA’s activities,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and ranking minority member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., wrote in a letter to Margaret Hawkins, (pdf) the director of records and management services at the archives.
But agency officials quickly shot back, calling the committee’s concerns grossly overblown and ill informed. They insist their proposal is completely in keeping with — and in some cases goes beyond — the email retention policies of other government agencies. “What we’ve proposed is a totally normal process,” one agency official told Yahoo News.
The source of the controversy may be that the CIA, given its secret mission and rich history of clandestine operations, is not a normal agency. And its proposal to destroy internal emails comes amid mounting tensions between the CIA and its Senate oversight panel, stoked by continued bickering over an upcoming committee report — relying heavily on years-old internal CIA emails — that is sharply critical of the agency’s use of waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques against al-Qaida suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
In this case, however, Chambliss — a conservative Republican who has sided with the CIA on the interrogation issue — joined with Feinstein in questioning the agency’s proposed new email policy, which would allow for the destruction of email messages sent by all but a relatively small number of senior agency officials. “In our experience, email messages are essential to finding CIA records that may not exist in other so-called permanent records,” the two senators wrote in their letter, a copy of which was also sent this week to CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. …
Under the new proposal, only the emails of 22 senior agency officials would be permanently retained; all others, including all covert officers except the director of the National Clandestine Service, could be deleted three years after the employees leave the CIA “or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner,” according to a copy of the agency’s plan….
But the plan has sparked criticism from watchdog groups and historians who note the agency’s track record of destroying potentially embarrassing material: In 2007, it was disclosed that agency officials had destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting the waterboarding of two high-value detainees. The disclosure prompted a criminal investigation by the Justice Department as well as a separate National Archives probe into whether the agency had violated the Federal Records Act. Neither inquiry led to any federal charges.
The CIA has a history of destroying records “that are embarrassing” and “disclose mistakes” or “reflect poorly on the conduct of the CIA,” said Tim Weiner, the author of “Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA,” in comments filed with the National Archives by Open the Government, a watchdog group that is seeking to block the CIA proposal. He noted that during the Iran-Contra Affair, for example, those involved “fed so many records into the shredder that they jammed the shredder.” “It cannot be left to the CIA to determine what is a record of historical significance,” Weiner said.
Excerpts from Michael Isikoff,The CIA wants to destroy thousands of internal emails covering spy operations and other activities, Yahoo News, Nov. 20, 2014