The CIA wants to destroy thousands of internal emails covering spy operations and other activities

Proposal draws bipartisan fire from Congress, but agency officials say the criticism is overblown

A workman dusts the floor at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va., in this 2005 photo. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A CIA plan to erase tens of thousands of its internal emails — including those sent by virtually all covert and counterterrorism officers after they leave the agency — is drawing fire from Senate Intelligence Committee members concerned that it would wipe out key records of some of the agency's most controversial operations.

The agency proposal, which has been tentatively approved by the National Archives, "could allow for the destruction of crucial documentary evidence regarding the CIA's activities," Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and ranking minority member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., wrote in a letter to Margaret Hawkins, the director of records and management services at the archives. 

But agency officials quickly shot back, calling the committee's concerns grossly overblown and ill informed. They insist their proposal is completely in keeping with — and in some cases goes beyond — the email retention policies of other government agencies. "What we've proposed is a totally normal process," one agency official told Yahoo News.

The source of the controversy may be that the CIA, given its secret mission and rich history of clandestine operations, is not a normal agency. And its proposal to destroy internal emails comes amid mounting tensions between the CIA and its Senate oversight panel, stoked by continued bickering over an upcoming committee report — relying heavily on years-old internal CIA emails — that is sharply critical of the agency's use of waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques against al-Qaida suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

In this case, however, Chambliss — a conservative Republican who has sided with the CIA on the interrogation issue — joined with Feinstein in questioning the agency's proposed new email policy, which would allow for the destruction of email messages sent by all but a relatively small number of senior agency officials.

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

The agency proposal was initiated as a response to a government-wide problem: how to preserve emails that constitute legitimate "federal records," loosely defined as dealing with the "public business" or the "functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and operations" of the government — all of which are required to be permanently retained under the law known as the Federal Records Act.

The CIA proposal, submitted to the National Archives last January but only made public in recent weeks, would replace what officials acknowledge is an imperfect and inconsistently followed current policy that directs agency officials, on their own initiative, to "print and preserve" emails that might constitute federal records.

Under the new proposal, only the emails of 22 senior agency officials would be permanently retained; all others, including all covert officers except the director of the National Clandestine Service, could be deleted three years after the employees leave the CIA "or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner," according to a copy of the agency's plan.

Agency officials said that proposal is more rigorous than that of the FBI, which allows for the deletion of agents' emails one year after they leave the bureau. And, they note, the National Archives tentatively endorsed their proposal after an archives official concluded that "it is unlikely that permanent records will be found" in the destroyed emails that are not duplicated in other agency files.

"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 an email response to the Feinstein-Chambliss letter.

But the plan has sparked criticism from watchdog groups and historians who note the agency's track record of destroying potentially embarrassing material: In 2007, it was disclosed that agency officials had destroyed hundreds of hours of videotapes documenting the waterboarding of two high-value detainees. The disclosure prompted a criminal investigation by the Justice Department as well as a separate National Archives probe into whether the agency had violated the Federal Records Act. Neither inquiry led to any federal charges.

The CIA has a 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 filed with the National Archives by Open the Government, a watchdog group that is seeking to block the CIA proposal. He noted that during the Iran-Contra Affair, for example, those involved "fed so many records into the shredder that they jammed the shredder."

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

The deadline for comments on the CIA proposal expired this week — and Feinstein and Chambliss weren't the only senators to weigh in. Three other Democrats on the intelligence committee — Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — sent their own letter raising concerns and asking the National Archives to more closely review the agency's proposal.

A spokeswoman for the archives did not respond to a request for comment.