Publication Date

December 1, 1994

Continued Classification of Records Causes Administration Embarrassment

State Department legislation passed in 1991 and strongly supported by historians has put in place procedures that are working for increased access to historical documents over 30 years old. The State Department's Historical Advisory Committee, established by Public Law 102-138, "The Foreign Relations Authorization Act," for fiscal years 1992 and 1993, noted in its July 1994 annual report that it was the unanimous opinion of the committee that declassification refusals by the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency will "seriously distort the record of American foreign policy with at least two nations during the Kennedy presidency—over 30 years ago." Tim Weiner, a reporter for the New York Times, inferred from the minutes of the committee’s quarterly meetings, which are available in the State Department Reading Room, that the two volumes in question dealt with Japan and British Guiana, now Guyana.

In two New York Times articles, one on October 9, 1994, titled “CIA Spent Millions to Support Japanese Rights in 50s and 60s,” and the another on October 30, titled “A Kennedy-CIA Plot Returns to Haunt Clinton,” Weiner sought to shed light on significant portions of our history that have remained secret. Following months of intensive research and with the assistance of reporters abroad, Weiner was able to piece together aspects of two CIA covert operations of the Cold War. In both the stories on Japan and Guyana, he relied heavily on interviews with surviving participants. In Guyana particularly, there was considerable knowledge of the events that the State Department and CIA wish to continue to keep secret.

Although current national security policy rests on the assumption that much information must remain secret because its release would be embarrassing, there is strong evidence that keeping documents secret can also be an embarrassment. Weiner's article on Guyana is a case in point, as he describes an episode in which efforts to keep secret CIA activity in British Guiana in the 1960s proved an embarrassment to the Clinton administration. While the activities designed to destabilize the government of Dr. Cheddi Jagan succeeded in the 1960s, Jagan returned to power in 1992 in the country's first democratic election in thirty years. In June, the Clinton Administration considered as nominee for ambassador to Guyana a person who had been involved in the 1960s destabilization efforts. According to Weiner, the administration was "apparently unaware that the prospective nominee had helped to undermine the restored leader." In an interview with Weiner about the nomination, President Jagan said he was flabbergasted and had conveyed his unhappiness to the Clinton administration. Furthermore, Jagan noted, "Everybody in Guyana knows what happened, I don't understand why they should be left secret."

The insistence from the State Department and the CIA that these documents on Guyana remain classified ensued from a dispute between the State Department's Historical Advisory Committee that urged declassification and the agencies' classification offices that claim national security interests require continued classification. At its October meeting, the advisory committee reasserted its intention to recommend that the Foreign Relations of the United States documentary volumes dealing with Guyana and Japan in the Kennedy administration not be published unless the documents dealing with the CIA’s involvement in the 1960s are included. The committee, exerting its statutory responsibilities for scholarly peer review, contends that the omissions would result in a distorted account.

Government Information Locator System

Since 1985 the NCC has participated in various discussions with officials at the Office of Management and Budget about the development of a system for locating government information. The NCC has held the position that the strength of our nation rests on the encouragement of an exchange of information and ideas. While historians have long recognized the need to protect national security and privacy and to reduce expenditures, we are convinced that responsible citizens require access to a large quantity of government information.

The development of a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) is particularly crucial in the new electronic environment. At a hearing last year on a draft proposal for establishing GILS, the NCC testified and expressed concern that so little attention was being given to how the government would fund GILS and how researchers would actually use it. The NCC argued at that time for a closer relationship within the structure of GILS between the National Archives and agency records management activities. In the age of electronic records, it is particularly important for records, at the time of creation, to be identified as records that will or will not require preservation. Since the National Archives works with agencies in developing retention and disposal schedules, it would make sense for the National Archives to be a part of the early identification of information available through GILS. Such a relationship would facilitate both the work of agencies and the National Archives in inventorying records.

Recently, the administration released a draft of proposed GILS guidelines. While historians and other users of government information are pleased that the administration has identified the development of GILS as a priority, there are some serious concerns about the current draft. Recommendations for modification of the proposed GILS guidelines include ensuring that there will be adequate assistance for researchers in locating material, requiring all agencies to participate fully in providing access to their material, mandating that all agencies submit to the National Archives retention and destruction schedules for the material included in GILS, and establishing a mechanism that will allow users of GILS, as well as agency personnel, to have representation on the GILS board. Further information on the proposed GILS guidelines may be obtained from the NCC.

Collaborative Project Releases Model Standards for the Study of History in the Schools

On October 26, the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) released proposed national standards for teaching United States history in its guidebook, National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience. The guidebook, developed over two and a half years at the center, which is located at the University of California at Los Angeles, was the result of a lengthy collaboration effort that included schoolteachers, parents, historians, and 35 national education and professional organizations, including the American Historical Association. The guidebook is a part of Congress’s plan to create a set of voluntary goals for the nation’s schools. The 1994 law, Goals 2000: Educate America Act, states that by 2000 all students should finish grades 4, 8, and 12 with “demonstrated competency” in core academic subjects, including history. The NCHS guidebook, the development of which was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, provides model standards in U.S. history; a similar volume on world history will be published shortly. As mandated by the Educate America Act, President Clinton will soon be nominating 19 members who will serve on the National Educational Standards and Improvement Council, which has the responsibility for certifying model standards in the core disciplines.

Gary Nash, UCLA history professor and codirector of the National Center for History in the Schools, has noted that the guide emphasizes two types of learning: historical understanding, which includes knowledge of American and world history, and historical thinking, which requires students to analyze different points of view and examine primary sources such as books, artifacts, and photographs during the course of their research. The guidelines encourage teachers to highlight broad themes, to reveal the relationships between historical events and everyday life, and to broaden the discussion to include the histories of those who have often been neglected in traditional texts. However, since the release of the guidebook, a vigorous debate over the new standards has emerged between critics who accuse the guidebook of having an unbalanced approach and of ignoring traditional white, male heroes and supporters who endorse a broader approach that emphasizes critical thinking over memorization.

Assassination Records Review Board Holds Hearing

In October the Assassinations Records Review Board held a hearing to give researchers an opportunity to express their views on the question of what constitutes an assassination record. The board, established by Public Law 102-526, the "President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992," has responsibility for determining whether a record is an assassination record that should be part of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, housed at the National Archives. The board also has authority to make decisions about whether agency recommendations for continued classification of assassination records are appropriate.

The NCC provided testimony at the October hearing stressing the need for a broad definition for determining what is an assassination record. Since the assassination occurred during the height of the Cold War, the NCC noted the importance of including many records related to CIA involvement in Cuba and Mexico. Records that provide background on the historical context of the assassination as well as those that are directly related to the assassination should be considered assassination records. The NCC also noted the important precedent that this legislation establishes for involving in a very substantive manner outside specialists in an oversight role of federal government declassification issues.

Review board members were nominated by the president from lists of recommended individuals provided by specific organizations mentioned in the legislation and confirmed by the Senate. They are John R. Tunheim, chief deputy attorney general of Minnesota (chair); Henry F. Graff, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University; Kermit L. Hall, dean of the College of Humanities and professor of history and law at Ohio State University; William L. Joyce, associate university librarian for rare books and special collections at Princeton University; and Anna K. Nelson, professor of history at American University.

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