Publication Date

September 19, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • United States



In 1989, the Historian’s Office at the Department of State (HO) published Iran 1952–54—a volume of the long running series Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)—covering the period of the overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The volume, which had been highly anticipated because of the importance of the events for all subsequent US-Iranian relations, was widely criticized upon release. In the May/June 1990 issue of Perspectives, Bruce Kuniholm, professor of public policy studies and history at Duke University, wrote that “the misleading impression of U.S. non-involvement conveyed in the pages of the volume constitutes a gross misrepresentation of the historical record sufficient to deserve the label of fraud.” So many documents were either heavily redacted or withheld entirely that it distorted the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the coup. Government transparency, which had always been the raison d’être of FRUS, was seen to be in jeopardy. Almost three decades later, maintaining transparency in FRUS publications still remains a paramount concern for historians.

The Pentagon.

The Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation criticized the Department of Defense for its slow and incomplete declassification of historically significant materials. David B. Gleason/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (HAC) that oversees FRUS’s production reports both progress and significant setbacks in HO’s work in 2017. Last year saw the publication, almost 30 years after the original, of a retrospective Iran 1951–54 volume correcting the egregious omissions of 1989. As Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive writes in the June issue of the American Historical Review, the 2017 volume “features a large number of previously unavailable and critically important records on one of the United States’ more vexing international relationships.” The HAC lauds this accomplishment and the publication of seven other volumes in its 2017 annual report, calling it a “very impressive achievement.”

The HAC also sees other things to be positive about. The HO has undertaken an ongoing project to digitize and publish fully searchable online versions of FRUS back to the very first volume in 1861, and receives plaudits from the HAC regarding this effort. The project, launched in 2008, added 81 volumes in 2017, a remarkable achievement.

The report also, however, expresses concerns about the future of the series. Compiling and publishing new volumes entails a complex selection process followed by months or even years of work to obtain “authorization from the appropriate agencies to publish previously classified documents.” The HO is legally required to issue FRUS volumes within 30 years after the documented events, and the office has been making good progress in recent years. Unfortunately, the HAC reports that the “current state of the interagency declassification process places at risk continued progress toward that goal.”

Declassification of a document often requires input from multiple parties—the agency that created the document, the agency that originally classified it, and any agency whose activities are mentioned in the document. Each of these agencies is entitled to authorize or refuse declassification, making the process incredibly cumbersome. This “arduous and time-consuming challenge,” says the HAC report, makes HO’s achievements in 2017 even more impressive.

But the report raises some significant concerns about continuing progress on meeting the statutory 30-year timeline for publication of FRUS volumes. It praises the work of the HO, the National Archives and Records Administration, the State Department’s Office of Information Programs and Services, the National Security Council’s Office of Access Management, and the Department of Energy for the timeliness of their work. This contrasts sharply with its criticism of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA.

Departments and agencies are required by law to conduct a declassification review of documents sent to them by the HO within 120 days of receiving it. Denial of the request for national security reasons requires that the agency redact sensitive information rather than prevent release entirely. The HO can also appeal agency decisions.

In 2017, the Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review (DOPSR), according to the HAC, “completed only one out of eleven volumes submitted for review.” When it returned the other 10, it did so well beyond the 120-day limit. Furthermore, the volumes were incomplete and the office “denied in full the release of 589 historically significant documents.” The HAC’s report calls the DOPSR “unconscionably tardy and inattentive.” At the time of publication, requests for comment by Perspectives from the DoD had not been returned.

By law, FRUS is required to provide a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity.” With the DoD dragging its feet on declassification, however, it is possible that future volumes containing documents from the agency will not be able to meet this important standard. While the report is less critical of the CIA, it expresses concerns about the effect of “personnel changes and time constraints” on the agency’s review work. In December, the HAC met with CIA personnel to discuss these challenges; in the report, it noted that it “appreciates the hurdles” faced by the agency in meeting the requirements.

The report offers a number of recommendations. The HAC met with the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2017 and subsequently recommended allowing the HO to appeal declassification-related decisions made by agencies to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. Other recommendations include reducing the number of years the HO has to wait to access records from 25 years to 20 years, and creating better lines of interagency communication. If followed, these recommendations will hopefully alleviate HO’s problems in dealing with other agencies, and ensure the future and transparency of FRUS.

The HAC’s 2017 report can be found in its entirety here.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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