Report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation 1996-97

Warren F. Kimball, January 1999

Editor's Note: The following report for 1996–97, submitted on March 6, 1998, to the Secretary of State, is published here together with the cover letter from Warren Kimball, who represents the AHA on the advisory committee. The report for 1997–98 is expected to be submitted shortly, and will be published in Perspectives in one of the forthcoming issues.

Dear Secretary Albright:

This letter forwards the report of the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (Historical Advisory Committee) for the twelve month period October 1, 1996, through September 30, 1997, submitted in accordance with the requirements of the "Foreign Relations" statute, Public Law 102-138 of 28 October 1991 (22 USC 4351).

The report for 1997 speaks for itself, but because it officially covers the one year period that ended five months ago, the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) wishes to address some developments since the formal end-date of this report.

The report speaks of a growing sense of crisis about the future of the Foreign Relations series. That crisis is now upon us. In our 1996 report we warned that the intelligence community, primarily the Central Intelligence Agency, had continued to refuse to declassify 30-year-old information related to covert activities that were in support of United States foreign policy. We have reviewed many of those documents and can attest to the fact that the information is crucial to a publication that must be, by law, "comprehensive" and "accurate." If sufficient documentation cannot be declassified to provide the broad outlines of those covert activities, then any U.S. government documentary compilation about our foreign policy in situations where such activities took place will be so incomplete and misleading as to constitute an official lie. That would forever destroy the hard-earned reputation of the Foreign Relations series as the world's most honest, full, and professional published collection of such documents. Moreover, as we wrote last year, the HAC is "firmly convinced that the basic outlines of our thirty-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." We believe we could demonstrate that to you with ease, and we recommend that we (the HAC as a whole or some of its members) be called on to help the State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council perform an informed balancing test on particular cases.

In autumn 1997, the HAC recommended creation of a "High Executive Level Panel" to determine, in advance of any declassification review, whether or not a covert activity can be acknowledged by the United States. The State Department, with your firm leadership, agreed, and that panel had its first meeting on 16 February 1998. We are cautiously optimistic about the results of that meeting, but the proof of that pudding will be in the eating. With agreement at that initial meeting that a number of specific covert operations can be acknowledged, and the establishment of procedures for determining future acknowledgments, the current bottleneck may be broken. But that depends on two future actions: first, the willingness of government agencies, particularly the CIA, to declassify enough information to meet the statutory requirements for the Foreign Relations series; second, the continued willingness of the High Executive Level Panel to agree to acknowledge significant covert operations/activities conducted in support of United States foreign policy. We know there is a sizable number of such operations that meet that criterion as we move through the Johnson and into the Nixon presidencies. Until enough of that information is declassified to allow an historically accurate and valid documentary record to be published, this committee is likely to recommend against publication of any portion of the deficient compilations or the volume of Foreign Relations of which they are a part.

Unhappily, even if this High Executive Level Panel does allow publication of the compilations awaiting clearance, the backlog has become so large that there will be an inevitable delay in meeting the 30-year release date mandated by Congress. At this time, we cannot estimate the extent of that delay.

The other aspects of our report are dwarfed in significance by this crisis, which is a violation of the law and of American standards. We much appreciate the support we have received from you, particularly as regards the High Executive Level Panel, and we look forward to working with you and the Department to insure that the Foreign Relations series, as well as the Department's newly gained reputation for supporting reasonable openness, are maintained and enhanced. We welcome an opportunity to meet with you to discuss ways to achieve those goals.

Sincerely yours,

Warren F. Kimball, Chair, Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation

The Report

The "Foreign Relations" statute assigns the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) two broad responsibilities: first, to monitor and oversee the preparation and timely publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States series; second, to monitor and oversee the State Department's efforts to open its 30-year old historical record to the public.

In the six years since the creation of this HAC, we have worked closely with the State Department to provide access for the American public to the historical record of our foreign policy. The Foreign Relations series has approached the target established by Congress, that is publication of volumes thirty years after the events. In addition, declassification review and opening of the State Department's archival record will not only soon meet that thirty-year standard, but will also meet the twenty-five year mark set by the current Information Security Executive Order. Nevertheless, the HAC has a fast-growing sense of impending crisis.

To our intense disappointment, and for the first time since we began our work in 1991, we find it necessary to repeat, almost word for word, recommendations concerning the Foreign Relations series made in our previous report.

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 (e.g., Congressional hearings) and semi-official (memoirs by CIA agents) sources. It 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 Foreign Relations, as in the case of attempts to influence elections to prevent establishment of an anti-American and/or pro-Soviet government—something the United States has acknowledged doing in British Guiana—while refusing to declassify similar actions elsewhere during the same time period. For the editors of the Foreign Relations 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.

The Foreign Relations series depends upon acceptance of a simple but profound principle: This Republic cannot survive if government is secret and not held accountable for its actions. This committee recognizes the legitimate need to have classified information. But at some point, and we (and the President) believe that point falls somewhere between 25 and 30 years, accountability is more crucial to the welfare of the Republic than exaggerated concerns about current policy or the tired mantra about "protecting sources and methods."

Although our concern about the Foreign Relations series is paramount, there are other matters—problems and accomplishments—we wish to bring to your attention.

Not only has the State Department, with some exceptions, been a government leader in establishing schedules for transfer and opening of its records to the National Archives, but unlike a number of other agencies, the Department has adhered to that schedule. The Department's Office of the Legal Adviser will have established transfer schedules for nearly all its records by the end of 1997. We are informed that comprehensive transfer schedules for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research will be in place by summer 1998. We are promised schedules for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security by the end of 1998.

At the same time, the committee is very pleased to report that the National Archives (NARA) and the State Department have established dramatically improved procedures for making the department's historical record available to the public. Bluntly put, we believe that there is no other major agency in the government that has done as well as the State Department in this regard; we know of none that has done better. In addition, the reorganization of the department's Office of Information Resource Management (IRM) seems to have had a positive impact on the matters that concern us. That includes establishment of effective and constructive cooperation between IRM and NARA.

The failure of other government agencies to transfer their historical records to the National Archives, a procedure established by statute, continues to impede research for the Foreign Relations series. State Department historians find it difficult, sometimes impossible, to work in records which have not been organized in accordance with proper archival practices. Not surprisingly, this is a particular problem with the Central Intelligence Agency files. Even the CIA's own historical staff apparently has great difficulty working with the agency's historical files. The Defense (particularly the Office of the Secretary of Defense) and Treasury Departments have also been dilatory in transferring their files. In the long run, scheduling (organizing) and transferring records for transfer to the National Archives is cost effective, since the research involved allows destruction of superfluous records and makes the declassification review required by Executive Order 12958 much speedier and more efficient.

The tardiness of some agencies in scheduling and transferring their records also threatens to disrupt the State Department's very successful efforts to meet the deadlines set forth in that Executive Order. As a result, in some cases those agencies will not become aware of State Department classified information "equities" in those records until the last minute. That could force the State Department to shuffle its resources and seriously hamper the Department's systematic declassification review program, as well as allowing other agencies to claim that the State Department is delaying their declassification review process.

What appears to us to be the easiest "equities" problem to solve is that of clearing documents wherein standard unclassified CIA acronyms (e.g., CAS) appear. CIA officials have acknowledged that such references are frequently innocuous, yet we have estimates that up to fifty percent of all CIA "equities" in State Department files are because of such acronyms. We are informed that the CIA is discussing guidelines that could allow qualified persons in the field to declassify such innocuous references, and ask that the State Department encourage the CIA to expedite its discussions.

We are pleased to report that the Department of Energy and the National Security Agency have joined a number of other agencies in establishing procedures that facilitate research on the Foreign Relations series and also allow the State Department to plan systematic declassification review of its equities in the files of those agencies.

The committee is quite disappointed at the continued delay in appointing the Information Security Policy Advisory Council (ISPAC). On occasions when we have discussed implementation of Executive Order 12958 with representatives from the Information Security Oversight Office, we have been told that many of our concerns require study and advice from ISPAC. Yet well over a year has gone by without any firm information as to when the members will be appointed. That Executive Order represents a firm public commitment by the President, and we are deeply concerned that matters seem to be stalled.

We remain convinced that expensive, special "targeted" declassification programs distract both attention and resources from the systematic declassification review that is needed throughout the government—the kind of review that the State Department has done so well. That said, the committee applauds efforts by other agencies and other special committees to open the historical record to the public. However, all too often those openings are limited to selected documents and without the historical context needed to understand their significance, preventing such high-interest collections from being "accurate" and "comprehensive," which is the statutory requirement for the Foreign Relations series.

The committee does recommend that, by autumn 1998, the State Department establish a written plan for systematic declassification rereview of records that were reviewed and not declassified prior to the promulgation in 1995 of significantly improved State Department declassification guidelines.

In 1995, the HAC unanimously voted to revisit unsuccessful Foreign Relations declassification appeals two years after the decision. Therefore, in 1998 the committee will re-appeal decisions related to Japan 1958-60, and other two-year old unsuccessful declassification appeals.

In our report for 1996, we recommended that "the Department leadership emphasize to desk officers and declassifiers that the balancing test between those issues [concerns about current foreign policy] and disclosure is heavily weighted toward openness for information that is twenty-five to thirty years old and older." We would like to have a response to that recommendation.

We understand that legislation is being introduced in Congress as a result of the recommendations of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the Moynihan Commission). Since that proposed legislation bears directly the work of this HAC, we strongly recommend that we have an opportunity to offer our advice early in the process of developing a State Department position.

The Historian of the Department of State, Dr. William Slany, while providing indispensable support and leadership for the work of both the Historical Office and the Committee, has been the lead researcher in the ongoing "Nazi Gold" project. The HAC recognizes the importance of that project, as well as the quality of Dr. Slany's work, and has endorsed the department's commitment to it. At the same time, that project continues to have significant resource implications for the Historical Office (HO). Our concern about those implications is heightened by proposals from within the Department to establish a debriefing program for participants in major foreign policy initiatives, as was done recently with those involved negotiations for the Bosnian peace accords. That oral history project could eventually prove invaluable for the historical record, and the HAC encourages the Department to move forward with the proposal. But, because such projects have required the direct involvement of the Historian, we believe the time has come to create a new leadership position in the HO, that of Deputy Historian. This would allow that office to provide dedicated leadership for special projects, for the mandated work on Foreign Relations and public access to the historical record, and for the support work requested by the Bureau of Public Affairs and the Department. Despite budget restrictions, we believe a cost-benefit analysis will support this proposal, and we recommend expeditious action to create and staff such a position.

—Warren F. Kimball 
Chair, Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation
Committee Members: Vincent Davis, Michael Hogan, Michael Schaller, Robert Schulzinger, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Anne Van Camp, and Philip Zelikow