Publication Date

May 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


State Department Appoints New Advisory Council

One of the key provisions in P.L. 102-138, the State Department Authorization Act of 1992 and 1993, is the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation that will have oversight responsibilities for reviewing not only the volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States historical series but also the State Department’s systematic declassification program. The new law states that the Advisory Committee will be composed of nine members, six of whom will be appointed from lists of individuals nominated by six scholarly organizations. There was some concern among historians at the time that Congress was debating this legislation that the State Department could use their discretion in appointing the remaining three to politicize the committee. However, I am pleased to report that the State Department has now released the names of the members of the newly formed Advisory Committee and they are all scholars in high standing in their professions. The newly appointed members of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation represent historians, political scientists, archivists, and scholars of international law. The committee members are Betty Glad, George C. Herring, Warren F. Kimball, Anna K. Nelson, Bradford Perkins, Jane M. Picker, Emily Rosenberg, Arnold Taylor, and Anne Van Camp. The newly formed committee held its first meeting at the end of March and will be meeting again in May. Members of the Advisory Committee indicate that the State Department has adopted a number of measures to enable it to meet the deadlines set forth in the legislation for bringing the Foreign Relations volumes into compliance within a thirty-year time frame and for establishing a systematic declassification program for records over thirty years old.

Congressional Resolution Introduced to Open JFK Assassination Records

On March 26, 1992, Senator David L. Boren (D-OK), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Representative Louis Stokes (D-OH), former chair of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, introduced legislation to require within two years the public disclosure of most of the government’s secret files relating to the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. The joint bills, H.J. Res. 454 and S.J. Res. 282, establish an independent review board of five members, appointed by federal judges, to examine all of the government’s records—including CIA, FBI, Warren Commission, and Congressional committees—associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. All of the records, except those that the review board determines should remain closed for national security or privacy reasons, will be available at the National Archives. Senator Boren, who estimates that “99.9999999 percent of the documents” will be released, stated that he did not know what the files contained. Yet he affirmed that the time had come “to open these files to the public … and let historians and journalists and the people read them and draw the appropriate conclusions.”

Investigation in “PROFS” Case Produces Significant Findings

In November the D.C. Circuit Court gave the plaintiffs in the case of Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President permission to move forward on a number of important fact-finding initiatives. The American Historical Association, the American Library Association, and the National Security Archive, who are among the co-plaintiffs in this case, frequently referred to as the PROFS (Professional Office System) case, are seeking to prevent the destruction of computer tapes generated within the National Security Council and the Executive Office of the President during the Reagan Administration and containing messages on the electronic mail PROFS system. The coalition of journalists, historians, and libraries, represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group, contend that destroying the computer tapes violates the Federal Records Act, which requires the preservation of documents of historical significance. The government has argued that all historically significant records on the PROFS system, with the exception of Oliver North’s Iran-Contra memos, have been printed and are in the permanent file of the National Security Council. Documents from the National Security Council’s backup tapes of the 1986 and 1987 PROFS system provided significant evidence in the Iran-Contra hearings, but the government has argued that use by Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Robert McFarlane of the PROFS to conduct agency business was the rare exception and not the rule. The National Archives does not now consider electronic mail computer tapes to be federal records. Thus the PROFS computer tapes were not part of the National Security Council’s records disposition and retention schedules that agencies prepare for the National Archives.

Although the plaintiffs have argued since January 1989 that the PROFS system included many substantive records that were never produced in paper format, they did not until recently have the authority to undertake a full fact-finding initiative to prove this. From the initial stage of this discovery, the plaintiffs have learned that the National Security Council in 1990 searched the PROFS tapes preserved under Court order in this lawsuit from the Reagan years to produce documents for the Justice Department that would assist in the investigation of Manuel Noriega. In 1991 the government again used these old PROFS tapes to supply records to aid in the preparation of the confirmation hearings of Robert Gates as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The plaintiff’s examination of the National Security Council’s activities and procedures also revealed that the staff made extensive use of the PROFS system but that almost no printers in the offices existed that were capable of producing paper copies from the PROFS computer system.

Last November the Court deferred, ordering the government to produce a sample of the PROFS records until the plaintiffs had the opportunity to develop a factual record to show that a sample could easily be produced. Since the case hinges on determining whether computer records of historical value, which had not been preserved on paper and had been slated for destruction, the plaintiffs are once again making a case for their need to examine a sample of the material on the preserved backup tapes. On March 9, 1992, the plaintiffs filed a memorandum in support of the motion to compel production by the government of a sample of the materials on the preserved backup tapes. The plaintiffs refer to the government’s own use of the PROFS tapes to refute the defendants’ contention that the records were not significant and that the process of retrieving the records is unduly burdensome. Use of the “keywords” search function makes it fairly easy to recover and print all notes, calendars, and documents associated with specified individuals or subjects. For the past three years the government has developed many, often unsubstantiated, arguments of why the plaintiffs should not be allowed to review a sample of the backup tapes. The Court will decide soon on the plaintiffs’ request to move to the sampling stage of its fact-finding initiative so that the merits of the case can then be directly addressed.

Graduate History Education and Training in the Use of Archival Material

A major goal of the NCC has been to build a strong coalition of historians and archivists. Generally this has focused on national legislative and policy issues; however, one graduate education issue keeps emerging in conversations among NCC constituent members. That is the two-pronged question of historical training in graduate programs for archivists and research methodology and training in the use of archival material for history graduate students. Last summer a small working team, funded by a Research Fellowship Program of the Bentley Historical Library, met at the University of Michigan and addressed the issue of the historical component of archival education. This summer I will be the coordinator of a group of five that will explore the scope and type of research training needed by graduate students in history. The other members of the team are: Gerhard Weinberg, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; David Thelen, professor of history at Indiana University and Editor of the Journal of American History; Edwin Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History; and Gregory Hunter, associate professor, Palmer School of Library and information science at Long Island University and president of Hunter Information Management Services, Inc. If you have any comments or suggestions for this project, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Page Putnam Miller
Page Putnam Miller

University of South Carolina