State Secrets, Advisory Committees, and the CIA

Bruce Craig, February 2004

The recent congressional action authorizing the creation of a history office for the newly established Department of Homeland Security (see "The Coalition Column" in Perspectives, December 2003, 25) demonstrates that in spite of the current administration's desire to downsize and contract out history positions, history in-and of-the federal government is perceived by many as being vital. Though not widely known, several departmental history offices have the benefit of an advisory committee often comprised of historians and sometimes other members of the public who provide useful input on federal history office activities. Such committees also serve as vital sounding boards for departmental historians and often link the activities of federal history offices to the broader public and Congress. One such committee is the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation of the U.S. State Department.

This advisory committee is one of the few such bodies to be established by legislative mandate. Public Law 102-138, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (as amended) sets the membership of the committee at nine members drawn from among historians, political scientists, archivists, international lawyers, and other social scientists who are distinguished in the field of U.S. foreign relations. Six members represent the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the Society of American Archivists, the American Society of International Law, and the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations; there are also three "at large" members. The members are granted all necessary security clearances. The legislation requires that the committee meet four times a year. The historian of the State Department serves as executive secretary of the committee.

The advisory committee reviews records, advises, and makes recommendations to the Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, concerning the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documentary series. The committee monitors the overall compilation and editorial process of the series and advises on all aspects of the preparation and declassification of the volumes. Although the committee does not review the contents of individual volumes, it does monitor the overall process and makes recommendations on particular problems that are brought to its attention.

Once every quarter, the committee meets in public open session for about an hour. Most often, the representative of the National Coalition for History is the only representative of the public in attendance. A brief report on the transactions of the meeting are relayed to the broader historical community via the NCH Washington Update. Since most of the time the committee meets in a "closed session," the minutes (usually approved at the next regular meeting of the committee) often become the only means for knowing what is actually going on inside the State Department's History Office and with the FRUS series.

Most recently-during the December 2003 meeting-the committee met and approved the minutes of the September 2003 meeting (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/adcom/mtgnts/25125.htm). The contents of those minutes give cause for some concern for historians who make use of and rely on the FRUS series.

Concern especially focuses on the CIA and its role in approving FRUS volumes. A year or so ago, the History Office and the CIA signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) that was years in the making. It was designed to help address the backlog of declassified CIA documents that departmental historians wanted to include in FRUS volumes. The MOU also sought to facilitate declassification of materials from other agencies that retained CIA-related documents (CIA "equity") in their agency and bureau collections. When agency officials signed the MOU the CIA agreed to make complete reviews of FRUS volumes in 180 days. However, the minutes of the September 2003 meeting reveal that 11 volumes are now overdue. Through its minutes the advisory committee was able to express its disappointment and question whether this would be a continuing problem. The minutes record the CIA's answer: "The CIA acknowledged the problem, and outlined the administrative solutions in place to address it; for instance, sharing reviewing resources among the directorates."

Delays on some of the volumes are perhaps outside the CIA's control; and because of the highly bureaucratic nature of the CIA, even internal decisions can often take inordinately long. Nevertheless, because of the committee and its mandated duty to produce an annual report to Congress, the chair of the committee was able to note "that the problem of the declassification backlog continues and that it is serious." Thus the committee serves an important role as a communication link between the historical profession and Congress.

One final note, at the behest of the National Coalition for History and with the concurrence of members of the advisory committee, the History Office of the State Department has now agreed to post and periodically update a status report of the FRUS series. It may be viewed at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/27363.htm. But increasing transparency in the State Department does not necessarily signal a new executive willingness to yield up documents elsewhere-as evidenced by the CIA's recent veto of a move to declassify a presidential brief.

Release of Presidential Brief Vetoed

The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George J. Tenet personally intervened recently on behalf of his agency to prevent the partial declassification of a 1968 issue of the President's Daily Brief (PDB). For the first time, his action overrules an interagency panel's decision that had ordered release of the document.

Tenet invoked the authority that was granted him by a March 2003 Executive Order (EO) issued by President Bush that permits the DCI to block the declassification decisions of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP). The case in point involves historian Peter Pesavento who had requested declassification of the PDB dated November 26, 1968. The brief reportedly discusses the status and implications of the Soviet manned lunar program, a subject of Pesavento's current research interest. When his request was denied, he appealed to the ISCAP, an executive-branch body composed of representatives of five member agencies that considers declassification appeals.

After studying the materials in question, a majority of the members of ISCAP rejected the CIA's objections, sided with Pesavento, and voted in favor of "partial declassification" of the requested PDB. But after ISCAP issued its decision, Tenet exercised new secrecy powers granted him by President Bush's EO and stepped in to block disclosure by vetoing the ISCAP decision. A knowledgeable source familiar with ISCAP operations reports that in accordance with appeal procedures established by the EO, an ISCAP member appealed the DCI's veto to the White House as only the president can reverse the decision of the DCI.

No response to the appeal request has been received from the White House. Knowledgeable sources expect that most likely a decision will be rendered by the White House early in the new year. However, because there is no deadline for the president to act on such appeals, a decision may take longer than some optimistically expect.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.