Publication Date

May 1, 1997

Major Problems in Declassification

To the Editor:

Warren Kimball's "Classified!" (Perspectives, February 1997) is an excellent treatment of some of the major problems in the declassification review of the federal government’s historically valuable (permanent) records mandated by Executive Order (E.O.) 12958. Two additional issues relating to this subject, however, merit discussion.

The first involves ensuring that the records of the high-level offices and the advisory groups thereto are reviewed first. Only these records contain information on the complete range of issues dealt with by a particular agency and how and why specific policies were adopted or rejected.

E.O. 12958 requires that all permanent pre-1975 classified records be automatically declassified by 2000, regardless of whether they have been reviewed, unless they are exempted because they contain one or more of eight categories of information. Unfortunately, the progress of most agencies in implementing the new order is slow and uneven at best, and massive numbers of records, especially the most important high-level ones, will still not be reviewed by 2000, and if not already exempted from automatic declassification, will be at that time.1 As always, every agency is extremely reluctant to declassify with little or no review more than a handful of records. All are conducting varying levels of detailed and time-consuming examination to determine whether the records contain information exempt under the new order, not subject to the new order at all (for example, “Restricted Data” or “Formerly Restricted Data”) or which cannot be declassified by the agency reviewing the records and thus needs to be referred to another agency for a declassification decision.

Only two agencies are currently reviewing any significant portion of high-level records. One is the State Department, which appears to be the only agency that will complete its review of all permanent pre-1975 classified records by 2000 (due chiefly to the fact that the Foreign Relations Act of 1991 required it to begin reviewing all permanent classified records 30 years old and older). The other is the Air Force. Although it has only reviewed approximately 15 million of its estimated 176 million pages subject to E.O. 12958 (declassifying about 8 million), those reviewed include almost all the files of the Secretary of the Air Force, the Air Force Council (which advised the chief of staff), and the Directorate of Plans (which formulated war plans) from the 1950s and 1960s.

How can this objective of having the high-level records reviewed first be met? One obvious solution would be to provide more resources, but these are unlikely to be forthcoming. Another possible solution would be to establish for each agency a group comparable in authority to the State Department Historical Advisory Committee (some agencies have established public advisory groups to make recommendations on their declassification programs, but these have had little influence). Again, though, this is unlikely to occur. The only feasible alternative appears to be changing the current mandate to require the records of each agency's high-level offices and the advisory groups thereto be reviewed first. These offices and groups should be specifically denominated so there is no confusion or ambiguity about which ones are included. If, and only if, an agency has demonstrated good faith progress and adequate cause would an exemption be granted from automatic declassification for the remaining lower-level records the agency has been unable to review.

The second issue involves the considerable delays faced by the public in obtaining access to many declassified records. Because only rarely are all the documents in a particular collection declassified upon review, before the public can examine the collection, officials must perform the time-consuming task of removing all the still-classified ones (that is, "process" the collection). In almost all cases, this task is only done when the collection is transferred to the National Archives. Perhaps the most glaring example of delay involves the collection of over 14 million pages of pre-1964 Office of the Secretary of Defense records reviewed for declassification between 1981 and 1996 (among others, this collection contains all the 1956-63 files and some pre-1956 files of the Secretary of Defense). Over 8 million pages of these records were transferred in early 1996 to the National Archives in College Park, but they have not been "processed" and there is no timetable for doing so. The balance of this collection is still at the local Federal Records Center, and the National Archives cannot say when it will accession them. The National Archives, in conjunction with interested members of the public, must develop a priority list for both "processing" collections it already has and arranging the transfer to it of further important collections.

James E. David
Department of Space History
National Air and Space Museum


1. The slow progress is clearly demonstrated in the Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1997). The table on page 74 sets forth the estimated number of pages subject to E.O. 12958 and the number declassified as of January 1997 for selected agencies. Similar figures for FY 1996 have been submitted by each agency to the Information Security Oversight Office for inclusion in its annual report to the president. Until this report is submitted, however, this office and most agencies will not release the figures to the public.

Classified "Silliness"

To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing Warren Kimball's justifiably indignant critique of the reluctance of the Central Intelligence Agency and other "national security" agencies to declassify their records ("Classified!" Perspectives, February 1997.) As Prof. Kimball notes, the CIA’s “silliness” extends even to a refusal to acknowledge the presence of its agents in most foreign countries more than three decades ago. Kimball correctly observes that such ultra-secrecy both prevents historians from accurately writing U.S. history and prevents citizens from exercising their democratic right to know what their government is doing in their name. My own minor encounter with the CIA’s policy of obfuscation corroborates Kimball’s account. The encounter arose from my concerns as a citizen, but it should be of concern to historians as well.

In March 1995, then-Rep. Robert Torricelli and the New York Times documented CIA ties to a Guatemalan military official who was involved in the murder of a U.S. citizen and the husband of a U.S. citizen, as well as the torture and killings of numerous Guatemalans. I therefore wrote to President Clinton urging the abolition of the CIA on the grounds that its secretive conduct abroad made it impervious to democratic accountability. I noted reports of CIA “assets” being involved in the drug trade and death squads in Haiti, the payment of millions of U.S. dollars to foreign army officers via the CIA, the training and funding of torturers by the CIA, and the involvement of the CIA over the past decades in the overthrow of legally constituted governments, such as in Iran and Guatemala. All of these nefarious activities have been well-documented by historians, journalists, ex-CIA officials, and even in some cases by the recipients of CIA largesse; I did not think my list was particularly controversial on the level of plain facts.

But even though I believe the CIA to be incorrigible, I guess I was still naive, for I was surprised by the reply two months later, signed by Grace Sullivan of the CIA Public Affairs Staff, which categorically denied all such charges. "Please be advised that this Agency does not engage in activities such as those described in your letter," Ms. Sullivan baldly asserted. Perhaps her use of the present tense was intended to mean that the' CIA no longer engaged in such activities, but it verges on outright lying to use such a phrase in response to specific charges of past and present CIA activity. Moreover, a document Sullivan enclosed designed to deny CIA knowledge of or complicity in the killing of the American in Guatemala inadvertently confirmed two of my charges. Acting CIA Director William Studeman's April 5, 1995, testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence admitted that the CIA had failed to inform congressional oversight committees of its knowledge about the killing, and gave no indication that the CIA had stopped payments to a Guatemalan Army official despite its own suspicions of his involvement in the murder.

Sullivan also sent along a glossy 1993 CIA publication, Factbook on Intelligence, whose 40 pages seem designed precisely to say nothing of substance at all. The three pages devoted to “Key Events in CIA’s History” mention exactly two instances of CIA activities-participation in the Bay ‘of Pigs invasion and in the Cuban Missile Crisis-but detail the construction history of CIA buildings. (Seven additional pages deal solely with CIA buildings and grounds.) On covert actions, the pamphlet simply notes that only the president can order them.

As a response to public inquiries about the CIA's activities, the pamphlet is the crudest form of propaganda imaginable, an insult to the need in a democracy for open discussion of government activities. One may contrast it to the most recent documents pried from the CIA by journalists, such as the torture manual used to train Latin American "security forces" as recently as 1984, as reported by Tim Weiner in the New York Times on Jan. 19, 1997 (page All), with excerpts published in the Times on Feb. 9, 1997 (page E7). Weiner notes significantly that the CIA abandoned this manual only when it began to the discussed in the press and in Congress.

While I do not expect all historians to call for the abolition of the CIA, I think all should favor not only more liberal release of old CIA documents but a more honest and forthcoming acknowledgment by the CIA and the executive branch about its activities. I suggest that Prof. Kimball's State Department Historical Advisory Committee take up the issue not only of the release of documents but an analysis of CIA public relations efforts to deny publicly what its own available documents make clear. I second Kimball's plea for other historians to back up his committee's work. Such an effort would underscore the link between historians' and citizens' interests on these important issues.

Robert Shaffer
Ph.D. Candidate
Rutgers University at New Brunswick

Energetic Declassification

To the Editor:

Contrary to the impression of Warren Kimball in the article entitled "Classified! " of the February issue of Perspectives, the Department of Energy (DOE) endorses and fully supports Executive Order (E.O.) 12958, “Classified National Security Information.” The accompanying chart demonstrates the department’s success in meeting its commitments. For the third year in a row, the department has declassified more documents than it is classifying. The chart indicates the rapid increase in document declassification since the start of the Openness Initiative on December 7, 1993. On that date, the DOE announced the largest declassification of information in the department’s history, including revelations of 204 unannounced nuclear tests (20 percent of the total), the total U.S. production of weapon-grade plutonium, the plutonium inventories at all of the field sites, and the large quantity of mercury used at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

By releasing this information, the department has encouraged an informed public debate on important topics such as plutonium management (including safety, security, and storage) and has sought to promote government accountability and public trust in government.

Furthermore, these declassifications assisted the cleanup of the department field sites and significantly reduced the cost of the cleanup efforts (for example, the mercury cleanup at Oak Ridge). In addition, it provided the foundation for the United States to identify the weapon-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium that is excess to national security needs and to take actions for its safe disposition, as well as fostering similar actions by Russia for disposition of its weapon materials inventories. Following the department's declassification initiative, the Russians released much information on their nuclear testing activities, including the approximate size of their weapon-grade plutonium and uranium stockpiles.

Additionally, we have recently completed a Fundamental Classification Policy Review which recommended that more than 100 topical areas be declassified. This effort will result in higher fences, or greater protection, around only that information which is truly sensitive.

E.O. 12958 calls for the declassification of documents of permanent historical value that contain National Security Information (NSI). It does not apply to Restricted Data (RD), nuclear weapons related information. Even though reviews of RD are not required by E.O. 12958, the DOE has chosen to include such reviews in order to be responsive to the public, including historians. In order to determine priorities for reviews, we coordinate with our history division and the National Archives and Records Administration. It is noteworthy that the department has not requested any file series exemptions and will pursue declassification of all records.

In surveys, the department found that RD is, in many cases, embedded in documents marked as containing NSI and in unmarked documents. Such documents are likely to be presumed to be subject to automatic declassification requirements even though they are not. Therefore, collections that contain embedded RD must be reviewed to assure that they are not inadvertently released resulting in damage to the national security and hindering U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

The DOE is working closely with other agencies to facilitate the declassification and release of collections not warranting protection in the interest of national security. A requirement to review all such documents for RD was included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996, Public Law 104-106. Even with the responsibilities to review all documents containing RD, the department not only met, but exceeded, the FY 1996 declassification targets required in E.O. 12958.

A. Bryan Siebert
Director, Office of Declassification
Office of Security Affairs
Department of Energy

Warren Kimball responds:

The response of the Department of Energy to my "Classified" piece suggests a healthy and positive commitment on the part of DOE to open the historical record. I praise the department for not seeking any file exemptions from Executive Order 12958, I am happy that DOE has opened large amounts of information about nuclear testing and plutonium management, and I am extremely pleased to learn that DOE is reviewing RD (and FRD?) data even though the E.O. does not require such review to be completed by the year 2000 (the E.O. does, of course, require eventual review). I am less impressed by sheer numbers (pounds or cubic feet or pages of documents reviewed for declassification) since that skirts the issue of "historical significance," although ploughing through routine information is the first step in the process.

However, the DOE comment about RD (and FRD) information found in other agency and unclassified files is too vague to be of use. Is DOE asking other agencies to keep material classified on the chance that it contains RD or FRD information? Is DOE willing and ready (that is, with resources assigned) immediately to review other agency files for DOE “equities’ so that those departments and agencies can open the files? Is DOE willing to let the National Security Council and the Department of State make decisions about revealing policy, leaving DOE to concern itself with technical issues, including the technical aspects of non-proliferation? “Embedded RD” is unlikely to appear in broad foreign policy documents; will DOE declassifiers act accordingly?

Most important of all, if DOE is as serious about openness as its response suggests, then it should create an independent oversight committee that will have the time, information, security clearances, and support from professional organizations needed to provide a candid, proactive assessment of DOE’s efforts to open the historical record to the American public.

Warren F. Kimball
Rutgers: The State University of New Jersey at Newark

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.