12.01.14

Leahy & Cornyn Press For CIA To Retain Email Records

In Letter To National Archivist, Senators Call Email Access “A Piece Of American History”

WASHINGTON (Monday, December 1, 2014) –Responding to reports that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is seeking to adopt a new email retention policy that would allow the agency to purge thousands of emails from nearly all of its employees, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) are urging the archivist of the United States to reject the proposal that undermines oversight of the agency.

“We are concerned that this policy would undermine the ability of citizens to understand how their government works and hold it accountable,” Leahy and Cornyn wrote in a letter to David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States.  “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.”

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) sets recordkeeping policies for federal agencies. The CIA is seeking approval with the independent agency to overhaul its email policy to allow all employees and contractors to purge their emails three years after they leave the agency, while the email accounts of the agency’s top officials would become permanent documents. In their letter, Leahy and Cornyn noted that “Due to the nature of the CIA’s work, it is particularly important to evaluate carefully any changes to CIA recordkeeping policies.”

“We urge you to take these considerations into account as you consider whether to approve the new retention schedule for CIA employee email,” the Senators wrote.  “To lose permanent access to the email of every CIA employee, except the 22 most senior officials at the agency is to lose access to a piece of American history.”

Leahy and Cornyn have long partnered on open government issues, and together have authored several bipartisan bills to make improvements to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Last month, the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved their FOIA Improvement Act that would require Federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA.

A copy of the Leahy-Cornyn letter to the national archivist can be found online and below.

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December 1, 2014

The Honorable David Ferriero

Archivist of the United States

The National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001

Dear Mr. Ferriero:

We write to express concern about a recent proposal to allow the destruction of the emails of most Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employees three years after they leave CIA employment, “or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner.”  We understand that this policy would apply to all CIA employees except the 22 most senior officials of the agency.

Transparency and accountability are critical to a functioning democracy.  We have worked together for years to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the goal of making our government more open and transparent.  We are concerned that this policy would undermine the ability of citizens to understand how their government works and hold it accountable.  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.

Due to the nature of the CIA’s work, it is particularly important to evaluate carefully any changes to CIA recordkeeping policies.  Many CIA activities are not declassified for years or even decades.  Therefore, historians and other researchers, who rely on FOIA requests to learn about CIA programs and understand how the CIA’s activities fit into the larger picture of U.S. foreign affairs, may not have any basis to make FOIA requests until decades after the activities at issue occurred.  That is all the more reason why it is so important to maintain a permanent, full accounting of CIA activities. 

We also know that CIA personnel have in some instances deliberately destroyed records or other materials, suggesting that the National Archives must be particularly cautious in approving any policy permitting permanent destruction of CIA records.  Further, this new policy could undermine congressional oversight efforts, as pointed out by the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in their letter dated November 17, 2014.    

We urge you to take these considerations into account as you consider whether to approve the new retention schedule for CIA employee email.  To lose permanent access to the email of every CIA employee, except the 22 most senior officials at the agency, is to lose access to a piece of American history.  Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,


PATRICK LEAHY                            JOHN CORNYN

United States Senator                         United States Senator

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