The CIA is asking the National Archives and Records Administration for increased authority to destroy email records. It wants to be able to destroy the emails from all but 22 of its personnel “at 3 years” after their departure from the agency “or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner.” NARA is inclined to let them have this authority and has granted tentative approval. Open-government groups are crying foul and asking NARA not to give the CIA that much flexibility.
In comments submitted to NARA, 17 groups (including BORDC and DDF) assert that the proposal could “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.” Among the many concerns raised in the letter is that NARA seems ready to take the CIA at its word that anything of importance that is written in an email would undoubtedly also be preserved on paper in some permanent file somewhere, as well as the CIA’s assertion that robust internal controls are in place to make sure nothing is destroyed inappropriately.
Given the CIA’s history of document destruction based on questionable legal interpretations, the agency’s representations about its emails duplicating evidence preserved in other files should not be accepted without independent evaluation and verification. The letter provides examples of CIA destruction of records of vital importance. These include the videotapes of CIA “enhanced interrogation” of detainees after 9/11; Oliver North’s destruction of Iran-Contra records; records of the agency’s operations in Iran that led to the 1953 coup there, as well as of operations in Guyana, Indonesia, and other countries; and former CIA Director Richard Helms’ order to destroy all records of MK-ULTRA (the agency’s program to develop behavior-control drugs). It requests that NARA postpone a final decision on the CIA’s proposal request until, at a minimum:
- NARA reviews a sample of CIA emails to ensure that no unique, historically valuable material will be destroyed.
- The CIA finally answers NARA’s requests to account for its 2005 destruction of videotapes showing waterboarding and other torture methods, which the CIA has maintained was not a violation of the Federal Records Act.
- The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence publishes the Executive Summary of its study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, and the public can evaluate the extent to which the Senate torture report relied on unique information preserved in CIA email records.
The letter quotes Tim Weiner, author of the National Book Award-winning CIA history Legacy of Ashes, who said that the CIA’s proposal “has the potential of eradicating the history of the CIA….unless unique copies are preserved, there goes the official record of what the agency does.” Weiner continued, “this regulation cannot be allowed to be promulgated unless there is a systemic, orderly, legally enforced way to systematically preserve these documents.”
The following groups signed the letter: American Civil Liberties Union American Library Association Appeal for Justice Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) Center for Media and Democracy Center for Victims of Torture Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Constitutional Alliance Defending Dissent Foundation Government Accountability Project Human Rights Watch National Religious Campaign Against Torture National Security Archive OpenTheGovernment.org PEN American Center Project on Government Oversight (POGO) Sunlight Foundation