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Report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation 2012

Advisory Committee, September 2013

June 26, 2013

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 monitors the declassification and release of Department of State records.

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.

Since the Foreign Relations Statute of 1991 became law, HO has conscientiously strove to compile and publish volumes which are “thorough, reliable, and accurate.” The HAC appreciates that this standard is a challenging and complex one 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; until recently, it had more success achieving the quality than the timeliness requirement. But although the gap between its publication of the Foreign Relations volumes and the 30-year target remains substantial, the robust progress made by HO over the past year, and the preceding one, is very encouraging.

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 can be specified for not releasing them. In this area of its responsibility, the HAC is not encouraged by what it observes. The review, transfer, and processing of records are falling further behind the timeline needed to meet their targets, and the leadership of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does not manifest the sense of urgency required to reverse this trend.

Publications of the Foreign Relations Series

During 2012, the Office of the Historian published six volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series. These are:

  1. 1969–1976, Volume XVI, Soviet Union, 1974–1976
  2. 1969–1976, Volume XXVI, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1974–1976
  3. 1969–1976, Volume XXXVIII, Part I, Foundations, 1973–1976
  4. 1969–1976, Volume XXXVII, Energy Crisis , 1974–1980
  5. 1969–1976, Volume XLI, Western Europe, 1969–1972
  6. 1969–1976, Volume XXVII, Iran-Iraq, 1973–1976

While this is one less volume published than in 2011, it is double the 2009 total and includes the first published volume from the Carter administration. By December 2012, moreover, HO had completed the declassification of 11 more volumes. This makes 2012 the third consecutive year in which HO declassified more than 10 volumes, and it expects to declassify 11-13 more as well as publish perhaps another 6 volumes in 2013. These include the long-delayed volume on Congo, 1960-1968, and the following year, the Iran Retrospective and Chile, 1969-1973. The unprecedented four consecutive years of declassifying volumes in double figures will virtually eliminate the backlog of more than 30 volumes that dates back to 2009.

This progress reflects the stabilization of HO following multiple years of managerial disruption and internal tumult. The office is finally once again fully staffed and is benefiting from the exemplary leadership of Stephen Randolph, the Historian. It is likewise benefiting from the appointment of Adam Howard as General Editor, the recruitment of a cohort of skilled young historians, innovative administrative restructuring, and greatly improved relations with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and other elements of government with which HO collaborates for the purpose of declassifying documents. With a strategic plan in place to produce volumes at a rate sufficient to progress toward meeting its statutory timeline, and a move to new offices that offer more working space and secure storage facilities, morale in the office is higher than it has been in years. These developments bode well for the future.

The Challenge of the 30-Year Requirement

The HAC congratulates HO on these achievements. It likewise applauds the new effort to digitize and make available on the office’s website and in a format readable on tablets and smart phones all Foreign Relations volumes dating to 1861. Nevertheless, especially because HO is now extensively engaged in compiling for the Carter and Reagan administrations, and has begun the research for that of George H.W. Bush, the HAC is not sanguine about the prospects of the series achieving its goal of publishing the majority of the Foreign Relations volumes 30 years after the event in the near future—or possibly ever.

This pessimism evolves from the HAC’s appreciation of the challenges to publishing the Foreign Relations volumes in a sufficiently timely manner. The problem does not lay with HO. HAC expects the office’s impressive performance to continue. Rather, the most salient obstacle stems from the 1991 legislation itself. That statute, and a subsequent Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency, mandated and 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 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 well serves America’s national interest.

This barometer of openness, however, has created substantial delays in the declassification and publication processes over which HO has limited control. The office estimates that any Foreign Relations volume with an HLP issue (CIA 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.

HO in 2012 developed new internal guidelines for managing HLP issues. The office also developed processes for engaging the other agencies involved in HLP issues significantly in advance of the formal declassification process to mitigate delays to the extent possible. These innovative procedures led to the resolution of 3 issues this past calendar year. Still, the number of HLP issues will increase significantly as compilers work through the Carter presidency and beyond. 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. Consequently, while the HAC is confident that HO will do whatever it can to resolve them, and that the annual norm for submitting volumes to declassification will remain in the double-digits, the number of volumes it actually publishes each year, despite HO’s efforts, will probably not be commensurate.

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

During 2012, the committee reviewed the State Department’s classification guidelines and monitored the application of those guidelines to further the declassification process. It also monitored the transfer of the Department’s records–electronic and paper—to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). To acquire more information and greater insight, the HAC visited the NARA facility in College Park, MD and met with William Mayer, NARA’s Executive for Research, Sheryl Shenberger, Director of the National Declassification Center, William Fischer, Chief of the Department of State’s Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS) Systematic Review Program (SRP) Division, IPS reviewers, and more than a dozen others from their staffs.

The HAC notes with great concern that although it has made commendable progress, the NDC, even with abbreviated indexing which will frustrate researchers, hopes to but probably will not complete its quality assurance review and processing of the backlog of 358,000,000 pages of 25-years or more old yet still classified records by December 31, 2013, as mandated by President Obama’s Executive Order 13526. It is equally concerned that what it understands to be a substantial percentage of those records that have been reviewed by the NDC has not been cleared for release to the public. In the opinion of the HAC, the relatively high number of reviewed documents that remain withheld from researchers and citizens raises fundamental questions about the declassification guidelines.

The HAC notes with even greater concern that the State Department’s SRP was again unable to achieve its annual goal of completing the declassification review of 25-year old top-secret and “bulky” paper records, thus adding to the backlog. Further, the opening of declassified records at NARA is trending toward a 35-year if not longer line. Because of the need for archival processing by NARA’s staff once IPS and the NDC have completed their reviews and transferred the records, making them available to the public once they have been processed by the National Archives takes years longer. The HAC appreciates the challenges caused by underfunding, understaffing, and the increased volume of documents, an increasing number of which are electronic and therefore pose additional difficulties, some of which are technological. Nevertheless, the requirements of a transparent society and informed citizenry demand finding solutions. The HAC perceives a lack of urgency on the part of the NARA administration to find a solution.

The HAC will continue to engage with personnel from NARA, the NDC, IPS, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), the Office of the Presidential Libraries, and related entities to identify problems and strategies for addressing them. But it needs more help, especially from NARA’s administration. In particular, HAC intends to continue to insist that NARA formulate a clear and coherent plan, which includes the resource requirements for implementation, for making progress toward eliminating the backlog and ultimately complying with its statutory responsibilities. As matters currently stand, it is falling farther behind achieving this goal. What is more, with the dramatic increase in the number of State Department records, a growing proportion of which are electronic cables and email correspondence, and greater competition for declining government resources, the need for a change in process and institutional culture is immediate.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The HAC attributes the sea change in HO’s production, and the salutary effect of that change on the office’s morale, to superb leadership and a rigorously conceived plan to achieve well defined goals. NARA requires the same if it is to turn the tide and begin to progress toward meeting its statutory responsibilities. It currently lacks a plan, the backlog is growing, it is woefully understaffed, and its morale is the lowest of any government department or agency. NARA’s leadership must act now. The fiscal environment is not improving, and the volume of federal records to review, transfer, and process is exploding.

Richard H. Immerman, Chair
Laura Belmonte
Trudy Huskamp Peterson
Robert McMahon
Katherine Sibley
James McAllister
Peter Spiro
Susan Perdue
Thomas Zeiler