From the Letters to the Editor column in the February 2000 Perspectives

Secrets for the Sake of Secrecy: More on the Declassification Debate

Robert P. Newman, February 2000

To the Editor:

Time was, in my earliest struggles to obtain classified documents from government bureaucracies, refusals to declassify bore at least some relationship to reason. Government officials wanted deniability; opinions and foibles of advisers and diplomats needed to be shielded from criticism; perhaps foreigners would be embarrassed by something included in an American document. By far the most-used exemption, however, was (b)(1)—withheld for national security reasons.

Most of the federal agencies with which I dealt made what appeared to be good-faith efforts to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Their declassifiers, especially at FBI, were not too swift. When seeking government intelligence on Joe McCarthy's flagship heretic, Owen Lattimore, I ran across a fascinating series of interviews by FBI agents with an admiral of the navy whose name was denied, 30 years after the admiral was interrogated and 20 years after his death. The FBI agents believed the admiral to have been very disturbed, perhaps even pathological; his statements in June completely contradicted what he told them in March. The declassifier of these interrogations had a list of persons to be "protected," so this admiral's name was blacked out on the report released to me. The context, however, was released. When I read that the admiral was "the American closest to Tai Li," the Nationalist Chinese secret police head, I knew immediately that the informant was Admiral Milton E. Miles.

There were many instances of such contextual disclosure. From documents obtained at State, Army, Navy, FBI, House and Senate archives (though not from the CIA, which released nothing), I was able to put together a narrative of McCarthyite and McCarranite madness. The classified documents when unlocked yielded significant new information.

Come now the late 1990s, and an effort to understand how the paranoid NSC 68 came to be written. I could not believe that Paul Nitze, who in later years oscillated between bellicosity (Committee on the Present Danger) and sweet reasonableness (Walk in the Woods) could really have believed in 1950 that the Soviet Union was immutably committed to destroying the United States, even at the cost of an all-out war, or that the Russians would have sufficient nuclear capability to deliver a knockout blow to the United States in 1952. Existing literature on NSC 68 seemed only to present the pro- or anti-NSC 68 attitudes of various commentators in the 1990s. I wanted to know how this document came into being.

There had been two waves of declassification of records from the construction of NSC 68 in 1950. The publication of the Foreign Relations Volume I for that year, in 1977, offered a large number of relevant documents, mostly from State, but some from the military. In 1991, there was another flurry of declassification, and these documents in the National Archives revealed much more about who said what and how Nitze ran the Policy Planning Staff, which had the primary responsibility for NSC 68's construction. But when I used these files in 1998, there were still several dozen "withdrawn - classified" cards indicating missing documents. I filed an FOIA request.

For six months nothing happened; my request, like that of thousands of others, was "submitted . . . to our declassification team for review."

The 50th anniversary of NSC 68 was approaching, and I was planning a series of symposia on that fateful year, 1950. Surely, by now, one should be able to discuss the construction of that document on the basis of full record disclosure. Fortunately, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, a longtime advocate of greater disclosure in government (Grassley was a major supporter of Ernest Fitzgerald in that whistle-blower's long fight to get the Air Force to own up to massive cost overruns on the C5A aircraft) got on my case. Miraculously, within two months, I received notice that the documents I requested had been reviewed, and, for $125, the archives would send me the 440 pages.

Surprise. There were no smoking guns, not even significant new information. The most revealing, and embarrassing, documents had been released already, and I had copies. A hundred or so pages of this new release had been printed in Foreign Relations for 1950. Many of the new documents were routine, such as cost estimates for military assistance programs in 1951. Hardly, after a decade or so, national security information. One paragraph was still blacked out, apparently an alarmist British statement about Soviet intentions. One new release was Tracy Voorhees's redaction of the full NSC 68 designed for rapid scrutiny by busy executives. Most of the newly declassified papers were duplicates of things already in the public domain.

Why had this innocuous material not been cleared in 1977, or 1991? I refreshed my memory of the gravamen of Athan Theoharis's Culture of Secrecy; these monitors of the public's intelligence were hiding things just to appear useful. It was secrets for the sake of secrecy.

The panic attack revealed by 1950s documents was already clear from early releases. What remained classified was withheld for no reason at all. Is this more debilitating even than when the system hides misdeeds and incompetence? Perhaps not, but there is one lesson here: you can waste money chasing nuggets that have already been released.

—Robert P. Newman
University of Iowa