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Apr 7 2016   9:55AM GMT

After Outcry, CIA Drops Plan to Erase Its Email Messages

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher


Despite all the attention paid to Hillary Clinton’s email server, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a number of federal agencies have been looking for ways to delete email messages.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently decided that it was dropping a plan it had made in 2014 that would have deleted the email messages of everyone in the agency – other than the top 22 people – within three years of their departure from the agency, “or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner.”

“A representative for the National Archives confirmed to The Hill on Monday that the agency backtracked on its proposal last month, following efforts to reorganize its structure,” writes Julian Hattem.

According to The Hill, the restructuring, announced in October, involved creating a fifth “directorate” at the CIA, Digital Innovation, tasked specifically with cybersecurity issues.

The CIA wasn’t the only agency to come up with a plan to scrub old email messages. The Department of Homeland Security announced a similar plan in November, 2014.  That proposal covered more than just email messages, but also included surveillance data, so there was some security rationale for deleting it.

The theory behind the deletion was that any important CIA email messages would have been retained in some other way, such as by being sent to or from one of the 22 senior officials, wrote Hattem in The Hill at the time. In addition, the original request had noted that email messages not from senior staff that were in fact implementing programs on behalf of senior staff were intended to be retained.

The CIA plan was swiftly criticized by a number of transparency organizations and Congressional representatives, including the heads of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees. This led to the National Archives temporarily changing its mind. The CIA has now permanently withdrawn the program. Opponents of the CIA’s proposal also pointed out that the organization had already destroyed 2005 records, such as waterboarding videotapes.

So what’s leading to all these agencies wanting to delete information? In the case of DHS, it was supposedly due to storage costs, a justification that some found disingenuous due to the low cost of storage these days. Overall, it was a request from the Obama administration to help keep track of just the important stuff.

“The National Archives has been pushing all federal agencies for better management of the avalanche of email they generate daily,” writes David Welna for NPR. “The Obama administration has issued a directive giving those government entities until the end of 2016 to propose policies to winnow out important email, store it electronically, and discard the rest.”

That proposal is called Capstone, for a program that helps retain email messages without requiring user input. Based on a 2011 White House directive, Capstone is intended to make it easier for find federal government email messages.

For example, the CIA had previously been preserving  email messages by printing them out and filing them, wrote Ali Watkins for HuffPost Politics. “The CIA’s current system involves printing and filing away emails that are deemed important, a determination that is left largely to the discretion of individual agency employees,” she writes. “It is not clear what the timeframe is for how long those printed emails and any remaining electronic archives are supposed to be retained, though it appears there is currently no official requirement.”

What’s surprising is that the National Archives approved the plan in the first place. One would think that the Archives, of all places, would feel strongly about preserving records such as email messages, knowing that, in many cases, the value of a particular message might not be recognized until years later.

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