WASHINGTON — The National Archives told lawmakers Friday that it is reconsidering its tentative approval of a new CIA records-keeping strategy that would have allowed the agency to destroy the emails of non-senior personnel, according to a letter obtained by The Huffington Post on Friday.
The National Archives’ backtrack comes after blowback from the agency’s top Senate overseers on the upper chamber’s Intelligence Committee, who wrote letters to the office this week blasting its green light to the proposal and its reliance on the CIA’s good faith.
“Based on the comments you and others have raised, we have informed the CIA that we need to reassess their proposed schedule, including the scope of senior leadership positions and the proposed retention periods,” the National Archives and Records Administration wrote to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who sent a letter to the office on Wednesday.
Intelligence Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice Chair Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also wrote a letter to the National Archives, requesting the office reconsider the proposal in light of the emails’ oversight value.
“In our experience, email messages are essential to finding CIA records that may not exist in other so-called permanent records at the CIA,” Feinstein’s letter wrote.
CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani confirmed the National Archives had informed the agency it was reconsidering the policy. “We’ll be happy to work with [National Archives] and Congress going forward,” he said.
The agency’s new proposal was part of a broader National Archives effort to streamline the record-keeping operations of the U.S. government.
The CIA’s proposal, which was filed in January and temporarily approved by the office in August, would have allowed the agency to delete the emails of all CIA personnel (save the correspondence of 22 senior officials) “when no longer needed,” or, at most, three years after the author of the emails left the agency.
Critics and lawmakers slammed the new proposal, saying it gave the agency far too much discretion in determining what emails were worthy of keeping. The agency, meanwhile, insisted the new strategy would result in more records being stored, not less.
The CIA’s current system involves printing and filing away emails that are deemed important, a determination that is left largely to the discretion of individual agency employees. It is not clear what the timeframe is for how long those printed emails and any remaining electronic archives are supposed to be retained, though it appears there is currently no official requirement.
The new proposal refers only to the agency’s email storage operations, and would not impact the CIA’s storage of cables, the method by which any official agency communication is conducted, a person familiar with the current records strategy told HuffPost.
In defending its proposal, the CIA used that fact as justification. Any official information contained in emails would be swept up in other records protocols in place at the agency, it said. Hence, the leftover emails would be inconsequential.
Critics and lawmakers have balked at that notion, though, saying there are plenty of ways for important information in those emails to slip through record-keeping cracks.
“These statements, in our judgment and experience, are simply not true,” Sens. Heinrich, Wyden and Udall wrote in their letter. “Important information about the CIA’s actions, assessments, and decision-making processes is often contained in email records and nowhere else.”
The agency would have been the first of the nation’s intelligence agencies to implement the new procedure. Although the proposal might be sufficient for less-secretive government agencies, lawmakers said, the CIA should have to function under different rules.
In an apparent recognition of that, the National Archives also wrote that it would be meeting with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to discuss better ways to implement its new email storage initiative throughout the Intelligence Community.