From the News column of the September 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

State Department's HAC Report: Superb Leadership Struggles with Release of Materials

Allen Mikaelian, September 2012

The 2012 annual report of the Historical Advisory Committee to the Department of State (HAC), covering the year 2011, notes that the State Department Office of the Historian has made a commendable effort to improve both the quality of its core reference series, The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), and its timeliness. However, the committee notes, the office achieved greater success in the former than the latter, and is falling behind its mandated and internal targets.

The Foreign Relations of the United States has always occupied a difficult position in attempting to meet goals often at odds. It is an official record of U.S. interactions abroad, but it is supposed to present an unvarnished picture. It is supposed to be complete, but it must not release material deemed sensitive and classified, even if that material has been released to the public through other sources. Its production is complex, dependent on the declassification of records from multiple national security agencies, but it is required to release material no later than thirty years after the event.

Historians of foreign relations remember well the volumes on 1950s Guatemala and Iran released in the late 1980s. It was no secret that the United States had covertly intervened to overthrow governments in both countries, but the FRUS volumes had to gloss over these CIA-led operations because the agency kept the relevant documents classified. Historians, diplomats, and journalists pointed out that the omission made FRUS appear unreliable at best, and farcical at worst.

The AHA's Research Division, along with the governing bodies of the Organization of American Historians and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, noted that the "increases in deletions and omissions create an incompleteness that in itself is a distortion," and called upon the State Department to allow the Historical Advisory Committee greater access to review material so it may "make informed judgments on the integrity of the series." The Foreign Relations Statute of 1991 thus charged the HAC with monitoring and advising on FRUS and reviewing the declassification procedures of the Department of State. Six scholarly organizations—including the AHA—send representatives, and these are joined by three at-large members.

The 2012 annual report of the HAC praises the Office of the Historian (HO) for increasing the number of volumes published "following several years of managerial disruption and internal tumult." The HO is also digitizing its products, with an eventual goal of having all volumes, dating back to 1861, fully available on its website. However, the HO is required by statute to publish volumes no later than thirty years after the events they chronicle, and here, the HAC reports, it is falling short. The FRUS volumes on the Carter administration, for example, have yet to see the light of day, and the HAC is "not optimistic that the series can be brought into compliance with the 30-year statutory requirement in the near future."

In its analysis, the HAC notes the ironic centrality of the 1991 legislation in creating a significant bottleneck. In response to the legislation's demands for more openness, the State Department and CIA organized a "High-Level Panel" to ensure responsible release of sensitive information via the FRUS. In the HAC's opinion, the panel has been good for FRUS' completeness, as evidenced by "more than 40 covert intelligence activities," including operations in the Middle East, Africa, and Iran that have been cleared for inclusion in forthcoming volumes. The past willingness of the US government to release such details has, the HAC claims, bolstered the reputation of the FRUS series, and "has well served America's national interest." In an email to Perspectives, Richard H. Immerman, professor at Temple University and chairman of the HAC, noted that "scholars and government officials across the globe…uniformly hold up FRUS as an illustration of the pervasive openness and transparency that characterizes US values and society."

The price paid, however, is in the extra time—a year or often two years—that it takes for any volume reviewed by the High-Level Panel to be cleared. Although more flexible than in the past, the CIA continues to resist publication of material concerning secrets that are already well-known, the HAC claims, even though this policy was at the core of the criticism that led to the 1991 law. Looking forward, the HAC reports that "at least half of the Carter volumes will require resolution of [High-Level Panel] issues" and approximately 8.5 million documents at the Reagan Presidential Library are still classified. The Office of the Historian "will continue to struggle to meet the 30-year requirement target for publication."

This leaves the HAC and the HO in the position of attempting to meet a high standard while relevant documents are unavailable for publication. The HAC reports that it is helping the office ascertain how to produce volumes that meet the statutory standard of "thorough, accurate, and reliable" even if documents are not forthcoming. In these cases, Immerman explained, the HAC will consider whether omission of a document "distorts" or "conceals a fundamental dimension or pillar of the historical record." Volumes should proceed toward publication, he continued, if the omission is "anecdotal and hence does not affect the overarching story," but emphasized that "The HAC will not sign off on any volume if it believes the continued classification of material undermines its integrity."

Allen Mikaelian is the associate editor of Perspectives on History, and the AHA's media relations coordinator.