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Leahy, Cornyn Oppose CIA-Proposed Email Retention Regime

Cornyn and Leahy (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Two senior senators came out strongly Monday against a CIA plan to purge most of its email.  

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called on the nation’s archivist to deny the Central Intelligence Agency permission to adopt a new email retention policy they said would make the agency less transparent.  

“We are concerned that this policy would undermine the ability of citizens to understand how their government works and hold it accountable,” the two said in a letter. “In an era when critically important government activities and decisions are conducted via email, a plan to delete the majority of emails at any agency should raise great concern.”  

Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Cornyn is a veteran member of the panel. The letter was written to David Ferriero, archivist of the United States and head of the National Archives and Records Administration, which sets recordkeeping policies for federal agencies.  

The CIA is seeking approval to revamp its email policy to allow all employees and contractors to purge their emails three years after they leave the agency, while the email accounts of the agency’s top officials would become permanent documents.  

Leahy and Cornyn argued that the new policy runs counter to their efforts to make the government more transparent. In November, the committee approved a measure requiring federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under the Freedom of Information Act.  

They also believe that the CIA is unique given its raison d’etre.  

“Due to the nature of the CIA’s work, it is particularly important to evaluate carefully any changes to CIA recordkeeping policies,” the letter said. “Many CIA activities are not declassified for years or even decades.”  

The letter said a more permanent record is needed so that historians and other researchers can examine the agency. Those researchers typically rely on FOIA requests to learn about CIA programs and understand how the CIA’s activities fit into the larger picture of U.S. foreign affairs, and need to have access to information that is sometimes decades old, they said.  

They also noted that the new policy would make it more difficult to conduct oversight of the agency.  

“We urge you to take these considerations into account as you consider whether to approve the new retention schedule for CIA employee email,” the senators wrote.  “To lose permanent access to the email of every CIA employee, except the 22 most senior officials at the agency is to lose access to a piece of American history.”  

Leahy has a history of critical oversight of the nation’s intelligence community.  

Before the Thanksgiving break, Leahy led an effort to have the Senate consider a bipartisan bill that would have reined in the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program.  

But the measure failed to win the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster and be taken up by the chamber after Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will be the majority leader in next Congress, opposed the bill on the Senate floor citing concerns that it could hurt the nation’s ability to combat terrorists such as the Islamic State.  

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