From The Coalition Column of the October 2006 Perspectives

News Briefs, October 2006

Bruce Craig, October 2006

Robert Byrd Now Longest Serving Senator In History

On June 12, 2006, the 88 year-old West Virginia Senator, Robert C. Byrd marked his 17,327th day in the Senate and thereby become the longest-serving senator in American history. Byrd, who has long held the record for the most Senate votes cast as well as for holding more leadership positions than any other senator in history, now also pulls ahead of the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who, previously held the record as the "longest serving senator."

The Senate marked the occasion by appropriate tributes to Byrd, a champion for the funding of American history-related programs. Senators gushed as the good senator struggled to maintain his composure; ultimately he exited the chamber without speaking.

This year Byrd is seeking his ninth term as senator from West Virginia, and, according to some, he faces his toughest re-election campaign in years—against millionaire GOP businessman John Raese. Raese, who is a relative political novice, has the strong support of the Republican Party, which is expected to pour money raised outside of the state into the campaign against Byrd, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq.

Should Byrd be defeated, history would lose its most vocal and most important spokesman and appropriator for American history programs. For example, the Education Department's "Teaching American History" initiative, which to date has received over a half-billion dollars, owes its funding directly to Byrd's commitment and support. Byrd's future is in the hands of West Virginia voters.

Kyle-Lott: Is the Cost Really Worth It?

According to a report released by the National Security Archive, as part of a congressionally mandated review of previously released historical documents relating to nuclear energy and weaponry, the Pentagon and the Energy Department have reclassified as national security secrets historical data relating to the size of the American nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. The cost of the review to the American taxpayer is over $3,313 per page, a figure that has raised the eyebrows of government watchdog groups that are questioning the relative cost/benefit of the reclassification program.
The reclassifications are the result of a wide-ranging review of archival documents that could contain nuclear weapons data that Congress authorized in the 1998. The so-called Kyl-Lott amendments sought to re-screen documents for inadvertent releases information relating to the American nuclear arsenal. Since then, continuation of the costly program has been justified in terms of its potential to thwart terrorism.

In implementing Kyl-Lott, to date the Energy Department has spent some $22 million. To that end the department has surveyed more than 200 million pages of previously released public documents. The program has certainly kept young historians and contract researchers employed, but there are serious questions relating to the relative cost/benefit of the program and whether America is actually any safer as a result of the re-review. According to sources, there is no documented evidence of terrorists ever seeking information from archival or historical documents deposited in a NARA facility that has been of use in planning or executing a terrorist attack.

The Department of Energy has informed Congress that to date a total of 6,640 pages have been withdrawn from public access as a result of the re-screening. This comes at a total per-page cost of $3,313, but even this figure is deceptively low as the majority of the documents being withheld involves hold a lesser classification than that of "Restricted Data"—a classification that could potentially include weapon systems design information that possibly could be of use to a potential terrorist.

Agency officials, however continue to justify the re-review and reclassification. According to Bryan Wilkes, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration, "There's no question that current classified nuclear weapons data was out there that we had to take back..by today's environment, where there is a great deal of concern about rogue nations or terrorist groups getting access to nuclear weapons, this [program] makes a lot of sense."

But according to critics, there is no national security reason for the administration to keep such historical information classified, especially since it has been publicly available for years and in some cases had been specifically turned over to America's then number one enemy, the Soviet Union, in order to comply with provisions in two strategic arms reductions treaties. According to National Security Archive director Thomas Blanton, "What's really at risk is accountability in government.

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