CIA wants to delete thousands of emails as Obama administration stalls release of torture report

CIA wants to delete thousands of emails as Obama administration stalls release of torture report
The CIA wants to erase tens of thousands of internal emails sent by most covert and counterterror officers after they leave the agency, leading US senators and transparency advocates to fear the plan would mean the loss of vital government records.

The spy agency’s proposal, first submitted to the National Archives in January but only now revealed to the public, would mean only the emails of 22 top CIA officials would be kept on permanent record. Emails sent by all others, including all covert officers except the director of the National Clandestine Service, would be deleted three years after the employees left the agency "or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner," according to the plan, as reported by Yahoo News.

The proposal would replace an uneven system that is currently in place in which agency officials are directed to, of their own discretion, “print and preserve” emails that could be considered federal records, which are required by law to be retained.

The CIA has defended the plan, saying it ultimately goes beyond what is demanded by law and even supersedes what is required internally by the FBI, which allows agents' emails to be deleted one year after they leave the bureau.

"What we've proposed is a totally normal process," one agency official told Yahoo News.

The CIA has boasted that the plan has received tentative approval from the National Archives, as an archives official said "it is unlikely that permanent records will be found" in the deleted emails that cannot be found in other agency files.

U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Alex Wong / Getty Images / AFP)

Yet, top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have questioned the CIA’s plan, saying it "could allow for the destruction of crucial documentary evidence regarding the CIA's activities," as the committee’s Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss wrote to Margaret Hawkins, the director of records and management services at the National Archives.

"In our experience, email messages are essential to finding CIA records that may not exist in other so-called permanent records," the senators wrote in the letter, also sent this week to CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Three other Democrats on the intelligence committee - Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich - also sent a letter to the National Archives over concerns with the CIA proposal.

By law, under the Federal Records Act, agencies are required to save emails that are legitimate “federal records,” defined imperfectly as having to do with “public business” or the "functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and operations" of the government.

"The CIA's proposal is to preserve more records than required by law and preserve more records than many other agencies," agency spokesman Ryan Trapani wrote in response to the Feinstein-Chambliss letter.

Transparency advocates point to the CIA’s 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 offered to the National Archives by Open the Government, a watchdog group interested in preserving CIA emails.

Ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Drew Angerer / Getty Images / AFP)

"It cannot be left to the CIA to determine what is a record of historical significance," Weiner said.

An archives spokeswoman denied comment to Yahoo News.

One recent instance of CIA malfeasance regarding destruction of records came to light in 2007, when the agency admitted to eradicating hundreds of hours of video that showed two ‘War on Terror’ detainees waterboarded repeatedly while in CIA custody. Criminal investigations by both the US Justice Department and the National Archives - the latter over record destruction - did not lead to federal charges.

Documenting CIA tactics and operations following the attacks of September 11, 2001 is a sore subject for Sen. Feinstein and other Democrats on the Senate panel.

Feinstein has led a $40 million investigation into the CIA's Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Program - which was active from September 11, 2001 to 2006. The probe has found that the spy agency purposely deceived the US Justice Department to attain legal justification for the use of torture techniques against post-9/11 detainees, among other findings. The investigation and subsequent crafting of the report ran from March 2009 to December 2012.

Of that 6,000-page investigative report on the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program, which included the kidnap and torture of detainees, the public will only see a 500-page, partially-redacted executive summary.

Committee chairman Senator Ron Wyden (AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski)

How that executive summary is revealed to the public, however, has stalled during negotiations between intelligence committee Democrats, who only have about two months before they lose to Republicans their majority standing in the Senate following November’s midterm election, and the White House, which is fighting keep out of the report pseudonyms or aliases that, it says, could reveal the identities of agents still in the field.

The Huffington Post reported Wednesday that negotiations over the release of the Senate report had come to a halt based on disagreements over key redactions, which senators say would fracture any sense of narrative - and, thus, avoid accountability - in the public release. The Huffington Post then reported Thursday on a Senate-White House meeting that erupted in vigorous debate over the release of the report’s executive summary.

“[The report’s] being slow-walked to death. They’re doing everything they can not to release it," Sen. Jay Rockefeller told Huffington Post after the meeting.

"It makes a lot of people who did really bad things look really bad, which is the only way not to repeat those mistakes in the future," he added. "The public has to know about it. They don’t want the public to know about it."

Rockefeller, who is leaving the Senate in January, said the Obama White House has little, if any, desire to reveal CIA crimes of the George W. Bush era.

"The White House doesn't want to release this. They don't have to. And all we do is oversight, and they've never taken our oversight seriously," he said, later adding that the Church Committee during the 1970s was an exception.

"Under Bush there was no oversight at all. Remember the phrase, 'Congress has been briefed'? What that meant was that I and our chairman [...] and two comparable people in the House had met with [former Vice President Dick] Cheney in his office for 45 minutes and given a little whirley birdie and a couple charts," he said.

"They had a specialty for being unforthcoming in our efforts at oversight, and therefore there is no incentive for them to change their behavior."