CIA Withdraws Email Destruction Proposal

The Central Intelligence Agency has formally rescinded its widely-criticized plan to destroy the email records of all but 22 senior agency officials, the National Archives said last week.

The CIA proposal generated controversy when it became public in 2014 because of its surprisingly narrow scope, which would have precluded preservation of vast swaths of CIA email records. Such records have proved invaluable not only for historical purposes, but also for contemporary accountability and congressional oversight.

“The agency has withdrawn this schedule effective March 21, 2016, due to the agency’s reorganization,” wrote Margaret Hawkins, director of records appraisal and agency assistance at the National Archives and Records Administration, in an email message to the Federation of American Scientists.

“In our last communication on this schedule, it was conveyed that a public meeting would be held to address all comments received. With the schedule’s withdrawal, this meeting will not be held.”

In any case, CIA is still obliged to present a plan to the National Archives to explain how it will preserve or dispose of its email records. CIA can either adopt the standard template known as the Capstone General Records Schedule, or it can devise a specific plan of its own for approval by the National Archives.

“If the agency chooses to submit a new agency-specific records schedule, it will be available for request and comment to the public through the Federal Register process,” Ms. Hawkins wrote.

National Archives Tackles Email Management

Overwhelmed by the challenge of trying to sort, identify and preserve historically valuable government email, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has devised what it calls the Capstone approach to email management.

Under Capstone, government email would be categorized for retention or disposal based on the title or position of the email sender, rather than the contents of the email message. Those officials responsible for agency policy and mission performance would have their emails systematically collected and saved; others would not. In theory, this approach should simplify the task of email management and improve the preservation of historically valuable email.

NARA has prepared a draft “General Record Schedule” (GRS) for agency email that embodies the Capstone approach. The draft GRS along with related explanatory material has recently been published for public comment.

One initial concern is that the General Record Schedule would replace the various individual schedules that agencies have been obliged to prepare up to now. This would make it harder for interested members of the public to monitor the email management practices of particular agencies.

So, for example, it was the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency filed its own email record schedule last year that made it possible to discover that the Agency intended to preserve the email of only 22 senior officials. The ensuing controversy elicited congressional displeasure and led the National Archives to suspend approval of the CIA proposal. If there had been no CIA record schedule available for public review, there would have been no opportunity to challenge the agency’s minimalist record preservation policy.

On closer examination, however, this may be less of a problem than it first appears to be. That’s because the Capstone General Record Schedule would positively require the capture of email from a much broader cross-section of officials than were included in the CIA proposal. If CIA or any other agency wished to narrow the list of required officials specified in the draft GRS (in item 010), it would still have to prepare its own separate record schedule.

Even so, the draft GRS grants individual agencies considerable discretion in how they would implement the Capstone approach. Among other things, agencies would notably be responsible for determining “the extent of inclusion of classified email,” a provision that might easily lend itself to abuse.

Inevitably, there will have to be trade-offs made in order to achieve a government email management regime that is practical and effective. But agencies that have a history of problematic records management practices — not only CIA — should arguably be required to demonstrate a degree of competence and good faith before they are granted unsupervised discretion in managing the disposition of official email. In such cases, a requirement for individual agency record schedules might still be appropriate.