Report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation 2011

Richard H. Immerman, September 2012

The Historical Advisory Committee to the Department of State (HAC) embraces two principal responsibilities. First, it oversees the preparation and timely publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Second, it promotes public access to records that are 25 or more years older than the date of issue.

The Foreign Relations Statute of 1991 (Public Law 102-138 [105 Stat. 647, codified in relevant part at 22 U.S.C. § 4351 et seq.]) mandates these responsibilities.  It calls for a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary record of United States foreign policy.  That statute evolved from the public controversy precipitated by the Foreign Relations volumes published in 1983 and 1989 that covered the events surrounding U.S. interventions in Guatemala in 1954 and in Iran in 1953, respectively.  Both volumes omitted documentation on U.S. covert activities that either was not made available to the Office of the Historian (HO) researchers or was not cleared for publication.  Knowledgeable scholars rightly criticized the two volumes for falling short of the standard of accuracy and thoroughness, dealing a serious blow to the series’ credibility and stature.

More than two decades have passed since the Foreign Relations Statute of 1991 became law. During that time, HO has conscientiously strove to compile volumes that are as “thorough, reliable, and accurate” as possible.  The HAC appreciates that this standard is a challenging and complex one for the HO to meet in view of the explosion of important government documents pertaining to foreign relations produced by a wide spectrum of departments and agencies during the 1960s and later decades, and in view of the parallel requirement that volumes be published no later than 30 years after the events they document.  HO has struggled to meet these complementary obligations, finding much greater success in achieving the quality objective than in achieving the goal of timeliness. Notwithstanding HO’s commendable efforts over the past year, the gap between its publication of the Foreign Relations volumes and the 30-year target remains substantial.

The 1991 Foreign Relations statute also mandates that the HAC monitor and advise on the declassification and opening of the Department of State’s records, which in large measure involves the Department’s implementation of the operative Executive Order governing the classification and declassification of government records. E.O. 13526, issued in December 2009, which supplanted E.O. 12958, issued in 1995 and amended in 2003 by E.O. 13292, mandates the declassification of records over 25 years old–unless valid and compelling reasons could be specified for not releasing them. 

Publications of the Foreign Relations Series

During 2011, the Office of the Historian published seven volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series.  These are:

  • 1969-1976, Volume XIII, Soviet Union, October 1970-October 1971

  • 1969-1976, Volume XV, Soviet Union, June 1972- August 1974

  • 1969-1976, Volume XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973

  • 1969-1976, Volume XXVIII, Southern Africa

  • 1969-1976, Volume XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969-1972

  • 1969-1976, Volume XXXVI, Energy Crisis, 1969-1974

  • 1969-1976, Volume E-12, Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973-1976

This is one more volume published than last year’s number, which doubled the 2009 total. Some nineteen additional volumes, moreover, are currently compiled and undergoing declassification. This progress reflects the stabilization of HO following several years of managerial disruption and internal tumult. The office is finally once again fully staffed and is benefiting from the appointment of an Assistant to the General Editor, a fourth Foreign Relations division chief, and a Joint (State-CIA) Historian.  All the “orphan” volumes left unfinished by departed staff have been assigned to current staff.  HO has formulated a more coherent plan for reviewing compiled volumes, and it is addressing the bottleneck at the editing end. With the appointment of Stephen Randolph as General Editor of the Foreign Relations series, HO’s new leadership has been superb, elevating morale and intensifying throughout the office a determination to fulfill its statutory responsibilities.

The HAC congratulates HO on these achievements. It likewise applauds the new effort to digitize and make available on the office’s website all Foreign Relations volumes dating to 1861. Nevertheless, it recognizes the need for greater and more accelerated progress in the future. Despite improved publication processes and strategies and a rebuilt and increasingly more experienced staff, HO has been unable to meet the target of publishing eight volumes per year that it set for itself in 2009. More fundamentally, it has not met the 30-year publication requirement for any of the twenty-eight volumes that will document the Carter years, and the Reagan years, on which work has only recently begun, will present even greater challenges. Therefore, while commending the HO for its efforts, HAC is not optimistic that the series can be brought into compliance with the 30-year statutory requirement in the near future.

The Challenge of the 30-Year Requirement

The HAC is acutely aware of the challenges to publishing the Foreign Relations volumes in a sufficiently timely manner. The most salient obstacle, ironically, stems from the 1991 legislation. That statute, and a subsequent memorandum of understanding between the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency, mandated and greatly facilitated research in intelligence files and the incorporation of intelligence documentation in Foreign Relations volumes.  A State-CIA-NSC committee established in the late 1990s, the “High-Level Panel” (HLP), provides guidelines for the publication in the Foreign Relations series of documentation relating to covert actions and other sensitive intelligence activities that had a major impact on U.S. foreign policy.  That more than 40 covert intelligence activities have now been acknowledged for publication in the series is evidence of the success of the HLP. Because the Foreign Relations series serves as the primary venue for publishing documentation on the role of intelligence activities in U.S. foreign relations, it has become renowned internationally for its openness. This universal acclaim has well served America’s national interest.

This invaluable barometer of openness has, however, created substantial delays in the declassification and publication processes.  HO estimates that any Foreign Relations volume with an HLP issue (CIA, we must emphasize, is but one of multiple agencies with equities in sensitive intelligence-related issues) will spend at least one additional year, and often many more than one, in the declassification pipeline than will a volume which does not contain an intelligence issue requiring consideration, the drafting of guidelines, and clearance by that inter-agency panel.  Appealing negative decisions about documents is a time-consuming process. On occasion, moreover, the CIA has reclassified documents that it judges were improperly released previously, and it resolutely resists declassifying documents that entered the public domain through irregular channels. These documents are widely known to scholars, and thus CIA’s policy presents a special challenge for the HO to publish volumes that meet the standard of a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary record of United States foreign policy.

The failure of agencies to meet the 120-day deadline, set by statute, for reviewing documents chosen for inclusion in Foreign Relations volumes has exacerbated this problem. Along with CIA, the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Justice, the National Security Council, and other government organs have been delinquent in the past. The HAC is encouraged by recent evidence of improvement. Seemingly small measures, such as regular informal meetings between the HO and CIA, more frequent contact with DoD, and the assistance provided by Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), have had salutary effects. Still, the time and effort required to gain release of documents deemed vital to producing a thorough, accurate, and reliable history of U.S. foreign relations continues to constitute a serious roadblock to publication.

These issues intensify the challenge of hastening publication of the Carter and Reagan administration volumes. HO estimates that at least half of the Carter volumes will require resolution of HLP issues; the Reagan administration records at the Reagan Presidential Library contain approximately 8.5 million classified pages. Juxtaposed with the exploding number of all documents generated during this era, HO will continue to struggle to meet the 30-year target for publication.

Declassification Issues and the Transfer of Department of State Records to the National Archives

During 2011, the committee continued to review the State Department’s classification guidelines and to monitor the application of those guidelines to further the declassification process. It also monitored the transfer of the Department’s records–electronic as well as paper--to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  It notes with concern that notwithstanding the outstanding efforts of the Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS), the Department’s Systematic Review Program was unable to achieve its annual goal of completing the declassification review of 25-year old records. Further, the transfer of records is trending toward a 35-year line rather than the 30-year target, and making these records available to researchers takes even longer. The HAC appreciates the challenges of understaffing, particularly at NARA, and the increased volume of documents, but it stresses that solutions must be developed.  

The HAC will continue to engage extensively with IPS, NARA, ISOO, and National Declassification Center personnel to identify problems, particularly those concerning electronic records and the still-substantial backlog of documents needing declassification, and to thrash out solutions. It will also continue to meet with representatives of the Office of Presidential Libraries to discuss its declassification efforts.  The HAC strongly supports the collective efforts of the able staff members of these offices to promote a more rational and streamlined approach to the declassification and accessibility of governmental records pertaining to foreign affairs.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The HAC is convinced that HO can and must address its statutory responsibilities to comply with the 30-year requirement to publish the Foreign Relations series. Eighteen volumes from the Nixon-Ford years remain unpublished, only about half of the 28 projected volumes from the Carter administration have at present been compiled, and the research and compilation has begun on only 11 of the projected 46 Reagan volumes (scaled down from 56).  That in 2011 HO completed the declassification of 10 volumes signals commendable improvement. Yet the time required for declassification and publication is a minimum of two years.

The HAC is working closely with HO to accelerate the rate of publication. Management has embraced the committee’s recommendation that staff adhere to a two-year ceiling on the time required to compile a volume, and that the office focus its attention on those aspects of the process over which HO can exercise control. These aspects include greater adherence to page limits when initially compiling a volume, and measures that expedite the compiling, review, and declassification of the volume. The HAC has also supported management’s initiatives to improve oversight, integration, and quality control, and to formulate a more effective procedure for identifying an HLP issue and streamlining the HLP process. On a parallel track, the HAC and HO management are in frequent dialogue in an effort to arrive at a consensus judgment about when a volume meets the standard of “thorough, accurate, and reliable,” notwithstanding the continued classification of some documents. In such instances the HAC encourages HO to take advantage of online publication and carefully crafted editorial disclaimers.

The HAC appreciates HO’s commitment and capabilities. It is also confident that the anticipated move to a more secure and expansive facility on Navy Hill in 2013 will improve efficiency. Although in the short term reaching the 30-year line of publication remains out of reach, by making that achievement its highest priority, the Office of the Historian should be able to do so by the end of the decade.

Richard H. Immerman is chair, Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation

Committee Members:

  • Laura Belmonte
  • James McAllister
  • Robert McMahon
  • Trudy Huskamp Peterson
  • Peter Spiro
  • Thomas Zeiler