The CIA wants to destroy e-mails sent by non-senior officials. (Credit: Getty Images)

The National Archives is rethinking its preliminary blessing of a CIA plan to eventually destroy all e-mail messages sent by non-senior officials.

Criticism of the plan from senior lawmakers and public interest groups raised concerns “about the scope” of the CIA’s plan, said Paul M. Wester Jr., the National Archives and Records Administration chief records officer in a Nov. 20 letter to the CIA.

As a result, NARA “intends to reassess” the proposal and also consult with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Wester wrote.

News of the plan and NARA’s tentative thumbs-up was broken by  transparency advocate Steven Aftergood in his Secrecy News blog in October. On Friday, The Huffington Post reported that NARA was reassessing the proposal. Aftergood on Wednesday posted a copy of Wester’s letter on his blog.

The CIA sought permission in January to destroy e-mail communications of all but 22 top CIA officials within three years of their leaving the agency — “or when no longer needed, whichever is sooner.”

In August, NARA Records Management Services official Meredith Scheiber recommended the CIA plan be approved on grounds that the content of the e-mails would likely be “captured elsewhere in permanent records” and that the remaining e-mail “has little or no research value.”

But critics weighed in.  Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which conducts oversight of the CIA, earlier this month wrote to NARA to object.

For one thing, they said, e-mail messages are “essential” to finding CIA records that may not exist in other permanent records at the agency. For another, applying the proposal to all but the 22 most senior officials “would allow the destruction of important records and messages of a number of top CIA officials.” Those include the deputy director of the National Clandestine Service, the director of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center and all its employees, and the head of the counterproliferation division and all its employees, they said.

Other committee members sent a separate letter echoing Feinstein and Chambliss’ concerns. The CIA’s proposal would not comply with NARA’s own mission –“to provide eventual public access to federal government records, allow Americans to hold their government accountable, and understand their history,” wrote Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Records preservation is a key concern for the lawmakers.

lRecords preservation is a key concern for the lawmakers.

Feinstein in March delivered a scathing speech on the Senate floor recalling how it was revealed in 2007 that the CIA in 2005 had destroyed video tapes of the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques. She also said that in the midst of an investigation by the committee’s Democrats into the CIA’s techniques, agency personnel in 2010 removed CIA documents from a computer server that the Democrats needed for their probe.

NARA on Wednesday informed the committee and others who had commented on the proposal that it will hold a public meeting in the coming months to address the issue.  “This meeting will be announced in the Federal Register and will be open to all commenters and the public,” said Margaret Hawkins of NARA Records Management Services in an e-mail to Aftergood.