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The CIA Wants To Delete Old Email; Critics Say 'Not So Fast'

It's a question we've all wrestled with: Which emails should be saved and which ones should be deleted?

The Central Intelligence Agency thinks it's found the answer, at least as far as its thousands of employees and contractors are concerned: Sooner or later, the spy agency would destroy every email except those in the accounts of its top 22 officials.

It's now up to the National Archives — the ultimate repository of all the records preserved by federal agencies — to sign off on the CIA's proposal.

The CIA's move to revamp its email retention policy might have gone ahead with little fanfare had a small item not caught the eye of Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

It was a routine notice in a Sept. 17 issue of the Federal Register that listed a number of federal agencies proposing new plans to the National Archives for destroying email considered not worth saving.

"And when I looked at it closely," Aftergood says of that notice, "I realized it was actually pretty important."

That's because one of the agencies listed was the CIA. Aftergood, who's a longtime critic of the CIA's aversion to public scrutiny, found that in August, the National Archives had quietly given the agency a kind of thumbs-up.

"The Archive had done a preliminary assessment of the CIA proposal," says Aftergood. "They decided that it tentatively looked OK, and they were ready to move forward on it."

An Avalanche Of Email

The National Archives has been pushing all federal agencies for better management of the avalanche of email they generate daily.

The Obama administration has issued a directive giving those government entities until the end of 2016 to propose policies to winnow out important email, store it electronically, and discard the rest.

Most agencies have proposed destroying employees' email messages that are more than seven years old.

The CIA has a different plan. It would preserve the email of every employee and contractor for as long as they work there, but destroy all those messages within three years of them leaving the agency. The only exceptions would be the CIA's top 22 officials. Their email accounts would become permanent documents.

Aftergood says the problem is that those 22 officials are only the tip of a tall pyramid at the CIA: "There are many second- and third- and fourth-tier officials who are doing tremendously important and consequential work whose emails would, in many cases, just be destroyed."

Consider Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked thousands of that agency's documents last year — and who had earlier worked for the CIA. Under the CIA's proposed policy, Snowden's old emails would have been destroyed.

"The whole purpose of requiring the retention of records for a more extended period of time is an acknowledgement that the significance of records aren't always immediately apparent," says Douglas Cox, a law professor at City University of New York. "And the case of Snowden would be a perfect example of that."

Aftergood cites another example: the CIA's secret destruction nine years ago of videotapes recording the waterboarding of suspected terrorists.

"They didn't ask permission," he says. "They just went ahead and eliminated these records. They will never be retrieved, they will never be reconstructed."

The CIA stands by its new plan for managing email. In a written statement, a CIA spokesperson asserted the agency would "move to a standard of preservation that is greater than the National Archives requirements, well above current CIA policy."

In Line With Other Agencies

The spy agency's proposal to preserve only the email of its top officials does, in fact, align with a system the National Archives has suggested for all federal agencies.

But Paul Wester, the Archives' chief records officer, says there may be better ways for the CIA to retain key records — ways that critics of the agency's plan have pointed out during the Archives' public comments period, which runs through Nov. 22.

"The feedback that we're getting from the public interest process," says Wester, "has been very illuminating on different positions that we think we need to maybe rethink, and ask more questions of the CIA."

Top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the CIA, waited until the final days of the public comments period to weigh in on the matter.

In a sharply critical letter, Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and ranking member Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, warned the National Archives that the CIA's proposal "could allow destruction of crucial documentary evidence."

Wester expects no final decision before February, but no matter the policy, what the CIA preserves won't necessarily be accessible soon: The agency has withheld some records from the National Archives for up to 50 years, citing national security.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.