CIA Plans to Destroy Some of Its Old Leak Files

The National Archives has tentatively approved a proposal to let the agency get rid of files that don’t have historical value. Historians fear there’s a lot of room for error.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

The CIA is scheduled to begin destroying old records related to leaks of classified information in August unless critics convince the National Archives to scuttle the plan.

The National Archives and Records Administration tentatively approved a CIA proposal to get rid of several types of records after 30 years. Along with leak-tied files, the record types include medical records, behavioral conduct files, security clearance information, personality files with counterintelligence interests, workers-compensation reports for employees posted overseas, and declassification and referral files.

Leak-related files currently have to be saved permanently, but under this proposal they can be destroyed 30 years after a case is closed.

NARA told government agencies to propose buckets of files with no historical value to get rid of and the CIA offered its initial plan in October 2012. NARA approved it June 5, but there is a 45-day comment period before it takes effect. The general public has until July 19 to comment on the proposal and activists are arguing against what they see as a housekeeping measure that could erase documents at one of the most secretive government agencies.

NARA says the “unauthorized releases of classified information records,” aka leaks, have little research importance and that significant leak cases are saved for posterity elsewhere, like in legal records, so this bunch of files can be purged.

The CIA wouldn’t say anything about the contents of the leak material headed for evisceration, beyond pointing to a paragraph-long description in an appraisal report, written by NARA officials: “Case files relating to investigations of alleged violations of Executive Orders, laws, or agency regulations for the safeguarding of national security information, including those referred to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Department of Defense (DoD).”

Nate Jones, director of the Freedom Of Information Act Project at the nonprofit National Security Archive, expects information about notable leaks and more would fall into this category.

“I suspect the majority is any leak of CIA classified information to a newspaper, magazine, or book, which happens very frequently, not just the high-profile cases,” said Jones, a critic of CIA records demolition.

Jones warns that NARA and the CIA should err on the side of preservation, even if they believe the files at issue are backed up elsewhere. “History has shown that they are too eager to destroy their records,” he said of CIA officials. “The CIA does not have a lot of good will for preserving historically relevant documents.”

For example, just last month, it came to light that the spy agency chucked records about this country’s secret role in the 1953 Iran coup during an office move, when it believed copies existed someplace else.

A new 971-page Foreign Relations of the United States’ volume containing the official record of the CIA's clandestine Iran insurrection operation, codenamed TPAJAX, said irreplaceable microfilmed cables got deleted.

“The original CIA cables relating to the implementation of the covert action TPAJAX no longer exist,” the volume said. “There is no written record confirming the destruction of the 1953 microfilmed cables” because “records of such routine destruction were themselves temporary and scheduled to be destroyed.”

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Malcolm Byrne, who runs the National Security Archive’s Iran-U.S. Relations Project, said the loss of records on America’s secret assist with the ouster should serve as a cautionary tale. If past "CIA disinterest in some quarters about preserving records, human fallibility, and similar horror stories are a guide, then logic dictates there are plenty of grounds for concern – or at a minimum meaningful oversight, which is always a concern in these days of slashed budgets," he said.

A few years ago, the National Security Archive and other interest groups filed comments that ultimately halted a 2014 CIA proposed project to destroy emails of all but 22 senior agency officials.

On July 18, the National Security Archive, Openthegovernment.org, Demand Progress, and Defending Rights and Dissent asked that the National Archives halt plans to move forward with the CIA's latest record purge proposal.

“Until NARA is able to ensure beyond a reasonable doubt” that the records primed for destruction truly are not historically valuable and that the ones the CIA claims are backed up elsewhere are in fact preserved, the National Archives should “pause” the approval process, according to comments the transparency groups submit. Also, they want the declassification referral files moved to the permanent pile for public access in decades to come. "They provide an invaluable tool and a roadmap for researchers to identify documents that were once designated as too secret to disclose—but will be subject to release at some point in the future," the organizations wrote.

Some critics question why there's not enough money in the black budget to digitize and save everything related to leaks and CIA personnel.

Matthew Aid, an ex-intelligence officer and historian, puzzled over the rationale behind the National Security Agency storing "several hundred times the volume of the Library of Congress every single day as part of its global eavesdropping operations," while "the CIA can't afford to scan its records."

Since citizens can’t read the underlying CIA records, the nation depends on NARA's judgment on what gets saved in servers and what gets emptied into the trash bin.

Deleting leak-related material that used to be kept forever, "might raise some eyebrows, especially since it deals with a subject of current public attention and interest,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, but added he’s inclined to rely on assurances that significant portions are preserved somewhere else.

National Archives officials defended the vetting of the CIA records at stake. They said NARA met multiple times with the CIA to better understand the spy agency's workflow process and go over various scenarios for each of the types of records.

NARA explains that it can’t screen individual documents because of the impracticality of reviewing the millions of files covered by each recordkeeping schedule. Besides, “unique information on its own does not directly equate to whether records should be scheduled as permanent or temporary under NARA’s appraisal policy,” Margaret Hawkins, NARA acting director of records appraisal and agency assistant, added in an email on Wednesday.

Government-wide guidelines known as the General Records Schedule allow leak-related files similar to those in the CIA stash to be trashed, and NARA does not see a reason to exclude the “CIA from this policy, Hawkins said.

The cache at the spy agency includes instances of both intentional and unintentional disclosures of secrets, she said. And the "overwhelming majority" of episodes contained in the group were situations where the CIA ultimately found there was no unauthorized release or wasn’t able to determine who was responsible for the unauthorized release, Hawkins said.

Hawkins agrees that the example of the Iran cable destruction "is regrettable.” In 1997, NARA opened a so-called "unauthorized disposition case” to look into how that happened, and subsequently decided that all CIA operational activities files should be preserved permanently to help prevent another loss of one-of-a-kind records, she said.

CIA Spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak said in a statement that the stability and preservation of digital record formats is a challenge for modern recordkeeping.

“The formats will degrade or become obsolete like the floppy disks used decades ago,” she said, adding that agencies review record collections to ensure they preserve the most important contents for perpetuity. The NARA appraisal memo “makes clear the records at issue have already been determined to be the kind of records that should be kept on a temporary—not permanent—basis. They are likely to have limited or no historical value, and, in many cases, the information is replicated elsewhere.”

Update, 3/29/2018: The CIA is discarding old inquiries into media leaks to comply with a new recordkeeping policy, spy agency officials say.

On March 19, the Archivist of the United States signed a record destruction schedule that stops classifying CIA leak-related material as permanent.

“Records appraised by the National Archives and Records Administration as temporary will be destroyed in accordance with the NARA-approved records control schedule,” CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak said.

A National Archives spokesman says a signed version of the document will be posted publicly here. The CIA must adhere to the purge policy when leak-related records are 30-years-old, starting with files dated 1988 and earlier, according to NARA and the agency. Specifically, the CIA will get rid of early reviews of intentional and unintentional "unauthorized disclosure of classified information in the public domain" such as newspaper stories, books, and other media, the National Archives says. For example, when a newspaper article cites a CIA source “on condition of anonymity,” the spy agency then reviews the article for sensitive information.