Social Share:
Twitter Facebook Email Comment More








From the Noteworthy column in the January 1998 Perspectives

The Report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Documentation to the U.S. Department of State

Warren F. Kimball, January 1998

Editor's Note: We reprint here the full text of the recent, much-discussed report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Documentation to the U.S. Department of State. Warren F. Kimball (Rutgers Univ.), chair of the committee and the Association delegate, provides a brief introduction to the report.

This report, which generated an Associated Press story picked up by many major newspapers in September 1997, expresses the heightened concern the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) has about a fundamental lack of progress in getting certain portions of the historical (30-year old) record opened to the American public. That comes as no surprise. Since the inception of the "new" HAC in compliance with legislation passed in 1991, the committee has regularly warned that, as Foreign Relations series research moved into the late 1950s and the 1960s, declassification of documents would become more and more controversial, especially where covert operations (as opposed to intelligence collection) played an important role in establishing and implementing U.S. foreign policy. This has brought State Department historians, doing research on the Foreign Relations volumes, and the Advisory Committee into direct conflict with government officials and intelligence agencies who are convinced that continued secrecy is essential to their work. The HAC has endorsed the "balancing test" concept set forth in a presidential executive order whereby the public's right to know is balanced against the needs of current policy and the safety of persons and intelligence methods. Nonetheless, as all the Founding Fathers pointed out, the public can act responsibly and set reasonable standards of accountability only if it knows what is going on, or at least what has gone on. To do less exposes the U.S. Government to "ridicule and scorn."

The "culture" of secrecy, so often given as an explanation for the continued classification of information, is less a culture than a habit. It could be quickly changed by strong, emphatic leadership. The 1996 report is a plea for just such leadership.

There are positive developments to report. The State Department has taken the lead in systematic declassification, however much the HAC may quarrel with specific declassification decisions. The National Archives has taken long overdue steps toward asserting its authority and responsibilities in making the documentary record available to the American public. The State Department has implemented important changes in records management policies that will, the Committee believes, help insure for the public the preservation and accessibility of the department's records.

This is not a battle to be won, but an on-going struggle to be fought. We must keep "truckin' on," and that requires establishment of public advisory committees like the HAC for other agencies. The 1991 statute insured that the HAC would not go away, no matter how annoying, controversial, or wrong its recommendations and comments might be. That is not the case for other advisory committees, which have been isolated, ignored, and even reconstituted when they became awkward. Every government agency should be subject to structured public scrutiny--and that ought to be the law.

—Warren F. Kimball is the chair of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation

Report

This is the report of the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (Historical Advisory Committee) for the 12-month period October 1, 1995, through September 30, 1996, submitted in accordance with the requirements of Public Law 102-138 of October 28, 1991 (22 USC 4351).

The report surveys the work of the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) and presents our assessment of the current status of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, the world's most prestigious ongoing collection of government documents, one that has set the standard for others to emulate. The HAC also oversees the State Department's program for making its historical record available to the public as required by PL 102-138 and Executive Order 129587 (Information Security).

For the HAC, the key issue is the degree to which the complete historical record of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy has been opened to the American public. The committee recognizes the need to balance openness with national security, the safety of individuals, and the conduct of current foreign policy. At the same time, the HAC subscribes fully to the Jeffersonian precept that wise decisions require knowledge, and that confidence in government is a byproduct of reasonable honesty and openness. In this post--Cold War world, the HAC and the American public are unconvinced by arguments from some agencies that secrecy for 30-year-old information takes precedence over the value for the democracy of openness--not to mention the cost benefits of declassification that were outlined recently in the Moynihan Commission report.

The Department of State has set a standard for systematic declassification review of the archival record that is, so far, the best in the government. The department approached the Executive Order (EO) with a "can do" attitude and, whatever differences this committee may have with the department on declassification standards, it appears that it has made a good-faith and largely successful effort to meet the EO requirements. The State Department's review effort has demonstrated to us (and to the department) that "bulk" declassification based upon an assessment of the risks involved can result in the speedy review and declassification of huge amounts of information without significant risk. We know that the State Department is happy to share its experience with other government agencies.

With regard to the publication of the Foreign Relations series, the HAC remains concerned about a continued failure to adhere to the statutory requirement that the volumes be published 30 years after events. Personnel shortages in the Historical Office (HO) that have persisted over the past two years have contributed to the delay, although those shortages have been addressed by the department and should be alleviated shortly.

But the primary cause of delay is the dilemma of meeting the 30-year publication mark while insuring that the volumes present a full, accurate, and comprehensive account of the nation's foreign policy and diplomacy. All too frequently, the HAC and the HO are faced with choosing between that 30-year deadline and insisting on the accuracy and comprehensiveness required by the law. Occasionally this is the result of declassification decisions in the department that seem presentist and overly sensitive to the chance that publication of 30-year-old documents might seriously damage current foreign relations. We believe it would be most helpful if the department leadership emphasized to desk officers and declassifiers that the balancing test between those issues and disclosure is heavily weighted toward openness for information that is 25 to 30 years old and older.

But the problems posed by that sort of presentism are dwarfed by the barriers to opening the historical record which, to date, must be laid at the doorstep of the intelligence community, primarily the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The HAC was created as a direct result of the embarrassment that resulted from publication in the late 1980s of a volume of FRUS that ignored the use by the U.S. government of covert activities to influence U.S.-Iranian relations in the mid-1950s, despite widespread evidence (including memoirs by British and U.S. intelligence agents) to the contrary. Documenting covert activities used to implement U.S. foreign policy remains problematical for the FRUS series. The CIA has, for four years, acknowledged conducting at least 11 covert activities during the Cold War, but (as of the closing date of this report) has declassified enough information to delineate our foreign policy in only one case--British Guiana. As a result, a number of volumes of FRUS are delayed awaiting the outcome of repeated declassification appeals. The HAC does not advocate revealing secrets that would jeopardize national security or the safety of individuals. But we are firmly convinced that the basic outlines of our 30-year old foreign policy and how we chose to implement it can be told to the American public without fear of hurting living people or damaging current policy.1

We also fear that the slowness in developing effective and proactive cooperation between State Department historians and the CIA history staff as well as the uncertainties of widely divergent research approaches of State Department historians to intelligence issues have resulted and will continue to result in incomplete compilations (prior to any declassification requests). That means the FRUS series is not meeting the standards of completeness set down by the law. The HAC is closely monitoring this problem and will confront it directly during 1997. While the HAC has been assured in recent months (since the formal end-date of this report) that these problems are being addressed by the CIA and the HO, we cannot feel confident that effective, proactive CIA engagement with State Department historians on FRUS volumes is anywhere near at hand. The result is that a number of FRUS compilations now stand in never-never land, and the HAC is forced to contemplate recommending against publication because the 30-year-old historical record is or will fall grossly short of a complete record including the relevant intelligence involvement.

The HAC has to date evaded the issue of incomplete and inaccurate compilations, whatever the reasons for incomplete documentation, by insisting on prefaces stating that the volume in question constitutes an inaccurate and incomplete record. But the HAC is increasingly disinclined to resort to that sort of compromise when the committee knows that the documentary record is or is likely to be available in government archives. That is particularly true for the many covert activities that have been revealed in various official (for example, congressional hearings) and semiofficial (memoirs by CIA agents) sources. Such a compromise is especially ludicrous with regard to the specific covert activities now acknowledged by the CIA. The same is true for general policies previously revealed in other volumes of FRUS, as in the case of attempts to influence elections to prevent establishment of anti-American and/or pro-Soviet governments--something the United States has acknowledged doing in British Guiana--while refusing to declassify similar actions elsewhere during the same time period.2 For the editors of the FRUS series to pretend such actions and/or policies did not happen makes the volumes and the Department of State the target of ridicule and scorn.

FRUS publication delays early in 1995 were also caused by a serious backlog in responses from the CIA to HO requests for declassification review of documents needed for the series. That bottleneck was broken following timely and effective support from the State Department leadership in response to a request from the HAC. It now appears that the CIA and the State Department have established procedures that provide for a more expeditious review of FRUS declassification requests, although that does not address the more critical problem of declassification standards.

Continued random sampling of the department's declassification review effort in the archives continues to raise some concerns brought up in our previous reports. Agencies, particularly the CIA, with equities in documents in State Department files have failed to implement a declassification review program for such materials, whatever the promises, greatly slowing the work of State Department reviewers and denying the public access to historical documents that could easily be opened. This also significantly increases costs to the State Department. Repeating our recommendation of last year, the committee urges the department leadership to do all it can to insure that other agencies cooperate fully with the department's declassification review efforts--cooperation mandated by the spirit and letter of the new Executive Order on Information Security.

In our last report, the HAC made a number of recommendations aimed at increasing the use of State Department declassification guidelines by qualified personnel with the National Archives, especially at the presidential libraries. The committee is encouraged by the steps taken by the department to implement a number of our recommendations. This will speed up the review process, cut costs, and help the public gain fuller access to the historical record. The committee will continue to review those guidelines to insure that unnecessarily restrictive declassification standards are not established and that National Archives/presidential libraries personnel make effective use of those guidelines.

Research on the volumes for the Nixon years has begun, and the committee is cautiously optimistic about access for State Department historians to the Nixon Project materials. No serious problems have arisen to date, but we will monitor that process carefully to insure that HO compilers gain the access required by law without having to weave their way through unnecessary bureaucratic mazes.

The HAC remains concerned about implementation of EO 12958. We were consulted extensively by the department about the drafting and the implementation of that executive order, and remain convinced that appointment of the Information Security Policy Advisory Council is crucial to the successful carrying out of the EO. We are apprehensive at the number of "file exemptions" requested (though not acted upon) from the declassification review requirements. Even more troubling are rumors that most agencies with intelligence materials in their files may ask for an extension beyond the year 2000--the date when all unreviewed records would automatically become declassified. A happy exception is the Department of State, which has indicated that it expects to meet the year 2000 declassification review deadline.

The committee is pleased to report that the matter of management of the department's electronic records is being addressed by the department. We look forward to receiving regular reports on progress. Similarly, the department has taken appropriate steps to insure the preservation and proper management of the historically important files of the Legal Advisor's Office.

The support given the HAC by its executive secretary remains responsive and effective. We are particularly gratified by the strong and honest support of the Bureau of Public Affairs. The department leadership has given us a hearing whenever we so requested, has given our recommendations fair consideration, and has provided candid explanations for decisions. The respect with which the HAC has been treated makes our relationship with the department a productive one, however much we may disagree.

Notes

1. Subsequent to the end of this reporting period, CIA officials admitted to the HAC and the media that it had destroyed some records of covert activities undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s. However routine such destruction may have been, it seems to have been random, not systematic. State Department historians, often with the assistance of CIA historians, have managed to find significant, if incomplete, records for such covert actions. But declassification continues to pose very serious problems for the FRUS series.

2. Subsequent to the end-date of this report, the CIA released a small portion of documentation related to covert activities in Guatemala in the late 1950s. Additional releases may occur. Nevertheless, the HAC continues to recommend that those covert operations be part of the "retrospective" FRUS volume being compiled containing documents on significant covert activities and intelligence materials that were not available when certain FRUS volumes were published.