Publication Date

February 1, 1997

Washington is awash in classified documents.1 I won't repeat the dubious statistics about "how many pages of documents there are or how much it costs to keep the secrets they hold-suffice it to say that both statistics are in the hundreds of millions and climbing. And these numbers refer almost entirely to paper records; there are no useful estimates (and few rules) regarding electronic records. New York's senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan leads a special commission studying the entire classification and declassification process, while various private groups—notably the National Security Archive and the Federation of Concerned Scientists—lobby consistently, using the cumbersome Freedom of Information Act as best they can, to force government officials to review and open documents. Researchers had hoped that the end of the Cold War would solve the problem, but that has not been the case. It is not a Cold War mentality that we are fighting, but a national security culture that distorts too many 30-year-old documents into threats to the republic. Secrets about ex-enemies such as the Soviet Union and North Vietnam are judged less sensitive than they once were, but old secrets about our friends, and particularly about ourselves, remain tightly guarded.

Yet, in spite of this atmosphere of secrecy, the rhetoric of change suffuses Washington. In 1995 the White House embraced openness with a new Executive Order on National Security Information Management that confidently calls for "automatic declassification" of documents that are 25 years old. The Department of Energy (DOE) has apparently thrown open its darkest and most shameful secrets about radiation testing on humans; the hitherto supersecret National Reconnaissance Office is unmasked; and even the supersecret code breakers at the National Security Agency have used "bulk declassification,” to open up files. Most striking of all the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has "gotten out of the bunker" regarding secrecy, so said the agency's director in a recent letter to the New York Times.

But promises have not become realities. "Bulk declassification"-something the authors of the Foreign Relations Act of 1991 had hoped to promote-is dead, at least as a principle. Every agency with significant amounts of classified material has refused to give up its right to review everything, word by word, if it chooses. The same kind of resistance is undermining the much-publicized "automatic declassification" provision of the new executive order, as its implementors now glumly admit. Agencies are suddenly willing to spend whatever it takes to allow them to review their classified documents systematically. Once they complete their reviews, agencies can continue to keep information classified for various reasons-usually fear of damage to current foreign policy or reluctance to divulge any information about national security, intelligence sources and methods, or nuclear weapons and power. Those reasons, called "exemptions," are somewhat more difficult to justify under the new executive order, but not sufficiently so to worry the secret keepers.

Even more unsettling is the executive order provision for "file exemptions." File exemptions allow a category of documents to avoid being "review[ed] or open[ed] after 25 years." Agencies refer to the information in the documents that they hope to exempt as "Restricted Data." A number of requests for file exemptions have gone to the president for approval, but so far he has taken no action. Meanwhile, the agencies assume that they hope exemption requests will be approved. Two of the key players are the DOE and the CIA. Energy tried to claim that all Restricted-Data documents (documents that contain information about nuclear energy or weapons) not in its files were misfiled and should be removed from the files of other agencies without leaving a record.2 And there are indications that the CIA's requests would exempt on the order of 60 percent of its documents.

The Department of Energy

In fact, the DOE, despite its newly burnished public image, is an active opponent of the executive order. It has gotten legislation proposed that would exempt the DOE from the executive order and has asked other agencies (especially the State Department and the presidential libraries) to keep their vast collections of classified material closed until the collections can be checked for Restricted and Formerly Restricted Data. Sampling files that could be expected to contain only nonsensitive information to see if they can be opened in bulk is not acceptable to the DOE.

No one wants to give terrorists how-to plans for nuclear weapons. No one expects the military to provide data on recent or current military plans involving nuclear weapons. But we all know that nuclear weapons affect policy-foreign and domestic. Who looks over the shoulder of a DOE declassifier reviewing a document? Who provides oversight when the secretary of energy or his or her subordinates expand the DOE's share of what bureaucrats call the "universe of classified information," allowing the department to ask for a legal exemption from the executive order? (1 am told that the bill the DOE wants would exempt all DOE materials that the agency is "unable" to review because of inadequate resources, thereby almost guaranteeing a minimal declassification effort. In fact, it is possible to review vast amounts of documents within existing budgets-as the State Department has demonstrated.)3

The Central Intelligence Agency

Looking at the historical record, I am unable to decide whether CIA leaders have been brilliant or bumbling as secret agents. I am less ambiguous about their record as bureaucrats—they have been brilliant bureaucrats! The 1991 Foreign Relations Act requires the CIA to cooperate with the State Department in locating and providing access to documents relevant to the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. The legislation obliges the State Department to continue to publish the FRUS series, insisting that the series be a "thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record," containing "all records needed to provide a comprehensive documentation of foreign poll decisions and actions of the U.S. Government." Requiring each department and agency of the government to cooperate with State Department historians in compiling records relevant to the series is a crucial change that has forced the military and defense departments, the DOE, and the CIA to become part of the process—however grudgingly.

The CIA has given the State Department Historical Office access to CIA documents, but only when State Department historians have asked the right questions, and then only to files the CIA has been willing to provide—leaving the likelihood that there are activities we do not know about. The CIA has made reasonable efforts to review FRUS material expeditiously. But the CIA has not only not opened up, it has managed to convince a number of influential people, including too many in the media, that openness is a reality at the agency. In 1993 the director of Central Intelligence acknowledged that during the Cold War the agency had conducted 11 specific covert operations (presumably in support of American foreign policy). More than three years later, where are the documents about those covert operations? Classified!4 Moreover, the agency continues to admit to only 11 such operations—an insult to our intelligence. Literally tens of thousands of pages of documents from State Department files now in the National Archives remain closed because somewhere in the documents (many of which are 30 years old) mention is made of the existence of a CIA station or agent in a foreign country. Only Lewis Carroll or Franz Kafka could hope to explain the CIA’s continued refusal to acknowledge its presence—more than 30 years ago—in foreign countries.

That silliness is compounded by repeated CIA refusals to go to the archives to censor (“redact" is the agency’s euphemism) the offending phrases (on the grounds that no one has asked for those documents). The CIA has acknowledged the existence of a station in Athens—but only for a single day. The agency argues that admitting a CIA presence in foreign countries would jeopardize liaison with other intelligence agencies, raising the bizarre picture of the world's most powerful nation quivering at the threat that the French Surete would cut it off from information (though there is little doubt that foreign intelligence agencies tell us only what they want us to know anyway).'

The key to the CIA's notion of openness is “control." Pressured by the media and other groups, and in trouble in some quarters on Capitol Hill, the CIA has offered the illusion of openness while maintaining control and distracting the public from the full record.' Their insidious solution has been "targeted openings," or openings of selected documents in response to public pressure. Private groups (such as the National Security Archive) target specific documents, usually those with high visibility among the public, and they sometimes succeed. (And despite predictions of disaster, the republic has survived the opening of these documents—just as it did when the Yalta documents were published and when the Pentagon Papers hit the street.)

Government Agencies and Information Control

But agencies and departments of the government have no business selecting what topics to open and what not to review. That is information control. Some historians and journalists whose personal research agendas are advanced by targeted openings will argue that any increased availability of documents is better than none. That is an "either-or" fallacy. Moreover, it is a selfish, shortsighted, and self-defeating viewpoint. In practice, it would have the effect of allowing government agencies to choose our research topics for us. As a matter of principle, we all must fight against attempts by government, including Congress, to preselect what subjects we can study.

Many in government as well as some in the media—and even some historians—will argue that declassification review is just a matter of priorities. Not so. Even ignoring (which we should not) the way targeting violates good archival principles and implicitly restricts First Amendment rights, justifying topic selection on the grounds of priorities would allow every agency to use the Department of Energy ploy-to argue that limited resources do not allow full word-by-word review of everything and that each agency should therefore set its own priorities for declassification review. That is information control masquerading as comprehensive openness. By catering to our fascination for the sensational, targeting insures that the public will .gain access only to controlled pieces of information, reviewed by employees of the very agencies that hope to avoid embarrassment. For, with the exception of the Department of State, no agency has been required to give any public group or outside committee the authority or the responsibility to exercise effective oversight over declassification practices. At present, the system is—with the one exception of the State Department—self-policing. No one watches the watchers.

Congress and Information Control

Nor should Congress decide the areas to be opened for research. Special cross-agency declassification efforts, such as the Kennedy Assassination Project and the Abuse of Power Project in the Nixon papers, are grotesquely expensive and inevitably divert resources from systematic declassification efforts. Even worse, such high-visibility projects have often resulted in the permanent removal of documents from their original files, threatening the integrity of the archival record and making it certain that documents will be read out of context. (Kennedy Commission members state that they have not removed documents from their archival context, but the members admit that other special projects have done so.)

We all recognize the public (or perhaps prurient) interest that prompted Congress to require such studies, but the professional organizations and their members should staunchly oppose them. Were all that money put into "systematic declassification review" and oversight of that process, the Department of Energy ploy could not work. Agencies could not cry "no resources" when their documents became 25 years old. The CIA could not mount a conscious campaign to distract the public from its refusal to review all its archives. Its jazzy, public-relations-style conferences in which it trots out declassified documents pulled out of archival context would no longer suffice. The CIA sometimes publishes a glossy book with its shows, but the "full relevant files are not transferred to the National Archives (nothing significant has gone to the National Archives from the CIA since the WWII Office of Strategic Services files were delivered a few years ago).

The State Department

This is a gloomy picture, and I have omitted much of the detail. Yet, after nearly five years and some two dozen trips to Washington, D.C., for meetings of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee, I have not lost hope. (I am chair of the committee.) The fact is that the State Department is demonstrating that a government agency with a shrinking budget can review its historical archives for declassification if it has the will—even if, or rather only if, that will is created by law.

The 1991 Foreign Relations Act changed the rules for both the Foreign Relations of the United States series and for the opening of State Department historical records. The original State Department Historical Advisory Committee came into being in 1956 after publication of the Yalta and Potsdam World War II conference volumes of the FRUS series brought heavy criticism (from State Department officials who thought that the volumes revealed too much and from members of the public and Congress who believed that the "really good stuff" had not been declassified). A deadening routine soon developed for the advisory committee-despite the best efforts of many of the historians who served on it. Once a year (usually in November) the committee met to be wined and dined, to be presented with lengthy dog-and-pony shows, to nod sagely at the impeccably argued cases against declassification, and to submit (or rather resubmit) a set of recommendations for improvements in the FRUS series—recommendations that usually echoed what had been said the year before and that could be,and often were, ignored with impunity.

This routine was shaken with the publication in 1989 of the FRUS volume on Iran for 1952-54. The picture of covert U.S. activities .presented in the volume was so grossly inadequate that a public outcry ensued. The outcry prompted another look at the volume dealing with Guatemala for the period 1952-54. That volume, published in 1988, followed the same pattern of ignoring covert actions. In each case, the intelligence community had refused to cooperate in compiling the volume. The controversy over these two FRUS volumes led to the passage of the Foreign Relations Act on October, 28, 1991, which, as mentioned above, requires the State Department to continue to publish the FRUS series.

The statute also obliges the department to work with a newly constituted advisory committee whose responsibilities go well beyond just advising the department about the FRUS series. The committee has oversight over the declassification review required for both the FRUS series and for 30-year-old State Department records. Thus the law requires the committee to have security clearances. It also requires all other agencies to grant committee members access to agency records.

The State Department process is far from perfect. Desk officers continue to treat 30-year-old documents as if they were written a few weeks ago, and the declassification review process remains cumbersome and all too cautious. Most of the State Department’s 30-year-old central files have been reviewed, but a large number of lot (special subject) files remain unreviewed, and post files have a low priority.

But there have been far-reaching, positive changes that are allowing much greater and much speedier public access to the department's historical record. Bulk declassification is often practiced, even though the department denies its legitimacy. And the advisory committee has persuaded the State Department Historical Office to put together a retrospective FRUS volume on covert and other intelligence activities that will result in publication of at least some of the documents about such actions in Iran and Guatemala during the mid-1950s that were withheld from the relevant FRUS volumes. In addition, the committee is taking a long, hard look at the Kennedy Library to insure that it is in compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. The committee and Historical Office staff played a key role in prompting the Johnson Library to get authorization from Lady Bird Johnson to review the Johnson telephone tapes for use in FRUS compilations, a process that has resulted in those conversations being opened to the public as well (The tapes are private, not government, property because they were created before the Presidential Records Act of 1978 that the Nixon debacle stimulated.) The advisory committee is also working with both the State Department and the National Archives to confront the problems created by electronic records; this effort is especially important in regard to State Department central files, which have been in electronic form since 1973.

The committee has enjoyed ever-growing and vigorous support from a number of political and career officials in the State Department, though I doubt that such support would have been so Vigorous and strong without the law. Government officials can evade, avoid, and even ignore rules, regulations, and presidential directives. Sanctions for such behavior are few and difficult to impose, particularly when the offenders have immediate superiors who are equally unenthusiastic about the rules. But breaking the law is more serious; it can jeopardize jobs and pensions, and government officials are loathe to take such chances. Just as important, for most Americans, breaking the law is distasteful and wrong. The committee's experience over the past five years indicates that only the force of law will bring about effective reform of the current information security rules and regulations-statutes must supersede the pieces of special legislation on disclosure that both the DOE and the CIA have managed to persuade Congress to adopt. At the same time, we must hold the Executive Branch accountable for the vigorous and consistent implementation of the new executive order. We must not allow anyone to reap political benefits from words that do not lead to effective action. We cannot allow government to be afraid of our history. Senator Moynihan pointed out that "if you want a secret respected," you must "see that it's respectable in the first place.'" Openness is the only way the public can pressure its government to act respectably.

But there is no magic solution, no perfect piece of legislation, no hope of permanent victory. Forcing our own government to open the historical record will be an ongoing struggle, a never-ending process. Occasionally we have to protest loudly against a specific abuse-and I encourage you to write to the leaders of your various professional organizations and to your senators and representatives in Congress, who definitely do read their mail. But most important of all, we must keep constant pressure on our government, always pushing for openness whenever and wherever we can. We must not let those who fear the public gaze win out simply because they were more patient than we were. If we stay the course, we can swing the balance in favor of the democratic openness that is so essential to our political system.


1. This paper is adapted from an address delivered before the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, in Boulder, Colo., on June 22, 1996.

2. Information that "belongs" to a government entity can be declassified only by that entity, even if it's found in another agency's files. The former secretary of energy, Hazel O'Leary established an advisory committee. That committee may prove to be a step in the right direction, providing that the climate of secrecy in the department is capable of being changed

3. In regard to the National Security Agency (NSA), whatever its intentions may be, openness thus far has been restricted to documents from World War II and before. The NSA designates the end of World War II as August 15, 1945, a date chosen so the agency could continue to hide some U.K.-U.S. activities that were "clearly Cold War stuff." The National Reconnaissance Office has opened no documents. The intelligence community has released the CORONA collection of early to mid-Cold War overhead photography, even if it is long obsolete.

4. There is one recent exception to this statement having to do with a small cache, opened in 1996, related to U.S. interference in the elections in British Guiana in 1962.

5. By autumn 1996 the CIA had discussed its plans for redacting CIA information found in State Department records, but as of November 1996, such plans had not been implemented.

6. We all owe Tim Weiner of the New YorkTimes, the National Security Archive, and other groups a debt for their work on behalf of more openness on the part of the CIA.

7. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, March 4, 1996. Remarks at a State Department open forum.

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