Noteworthy

1992 Report of the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation

Warren F. Kimball, May 1992

In 1990–91, the Committee and the U.S. Department of State made significant progress in dealing with some of the issues that had plagued the Committee in the recent past. The concerns that brought about the resignation in mid-1990 of the previous chair of the Advisory Committee, Professor Warren Cohen, dominated the committee's agenda. The fundamental issue was the loss of public confidence in the Department's overall program for making an accurate historical record of foreign affairs available to the general public through timely publication of the Foreign Relations series and systematic declassification review and transfer of materials to the National Archives. There were two specific problems: first, serious and substantial inaccuracies created by omissions in the volume of Foreign Relations of the United States dealing with Iran, 1951–1954; inaccuracies that violated the Department's policy of providing "a comprehensive record of the major foreign policy decisions," and, second, disagreement regarding access for the Advisory Committee to records requested by the Historian by refused declassification.

The Department addressed some of those matters early in 1991 with its "Plan to Improve the Comprehensiveness and Accuracy of the Historical Foreign Affairs Record published in Foreign Relations of the United States." Working through Assistant Secretary Tutwiler and the Historian, the Advisory Committee made suggestions and recommendations regarding the "Plan."

At the same time, legislation was being developed on Capitol Hill to deal with both the integrity of the Foreign Relations series, and the issue of systematic declassification and release to the American public of the historical record of United States foreign relations. The Advisory Committee reviewed and discussed with the Department and concerned Congressional staff various drafts of that legislation.

The enactment of public law 102–138 on October 28, 1991, gave statutory standing to the series Foreign Relations of the United States, to the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, and to systematic declassification review of State Department records. The Advisory Committee believes that the timely implementation of the law, in conjunction with the Department's "Plan" that was promulgated in mid-1991, would go a long way toward restoring public confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the Foreign Relations series. Moreover, implementation would also demonstrate the Department's commitment to the principle of an informed American public. Discussions before and presentations to the Advisory Committee suggest that not all personnel in the Department are inclined to work enthusiastically to effect the provisions of the law and the Department's "Plan." Therefore, the Advisory Committee makes the following recommendation:

(I) that the Secretary of State indicate to the Department his vigorous support for the timely and full implementation of the spirit and the letter of the legislation (sec. 198 of Public Law 102–138)—Oct. 28, 1991) and the Department of State "Plan to Improve the Comprehensiveness and Accuracy ... [of] Foreign Relations of the United States."

The Advisory Committee believes that requirements for systematic declassification review and the mandated goal of publishing the Foreign Relations volumes no more than thirty years after the events have an equal priority. The Committee finds the publication schedule developed by the Historical Office (Feb. 1991, rev. Dec. 1991) a very useful timetable. Those milestones and the reporting requirements set forth in the legislation should be met in a timely fashion and after appropriate consultation with the new Historical Advisory Committee. To that end, the Advisory Committee makes the following recommendations:

(II) that the Historian present to the new Historical Advisory Committee for its comments and recommendations a report on the development, by the Department of State and by all U.S. Government departments/agencies involved in foreign relations, of procedures for cooperating with the Historical Office (sec. 403 of the new Title IV); such report to be provided at least thirty days before the mandated completion date of April 21, 1992;

(III) that, because the new Historical Advisory Committee has the responsibility to review the State Department's declassification procedures and guidelines, a draft of the State Department report to the Congressional committees that is mandated by April 21, 1992 (sec. 404), be presented to the Committee for its comments and recommendations at a full committee meeting held at least thirty days prior to that date;

(IV) that the Department develop specific milestones for the completion of a systematic declassification review by October 28, 1992 (sec. 404 & 407), of all Department of State historical records thirty years old or older; and for publication by October 28, 1994, of all volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States for the year 1964 and earlier (sec. 407); and that the Historian and other persons in the Department directly involved regularly (at least quarterly) present to the Historical Advisory Committee information on progress toward the above-mentioned goals.

The centrality of questions about the integrity of the Foreign Relations series and about the status and role of the Advisory Committee limited the ability of the Committee to discuss and make recommendations regarding other issues concerning the historical record and the Department's declassification procedures. Nevertheless, the Advisory Committee offers the following comments and recommendations for consideration by Secretary Baker and by the new Historical Advisory Committee:

(V) The Advisory Committee was pleased the Department restored distribution of the Foreign Relations series to depository libraries. That program should be monitored to ensure that the series is effectively disseminated to the widest possible public audience;

(VI) The Advisory Committee obtained clarification that memoranda of conversations with foreign government officials did not constitute a record wholly prepared by a foreign government. Declassification procedures should be monitored to insure that such records are made available to the public;

(VII) The Committee is concerned about the future of the Foreign Relations series as it is affected by the information explosion and the technological revolution in communications, particularly growing public use of communications technology. These matters are raised directly by the Historical Office proposal to decrease the number of document pages printed in volumes of Foreign Relations, while, at the same time, putting new emphasis on the selection of documents that would serve as finding aids for the archival records. This proposal would speed up publication of the volumes, but poses questions relating to both the purpose of the Foreign Relations series and to the declassification and accessibility of the archival record. Before the new Advisory Committee makes recommendations regarding that proposal, the Committee should make a careful analysis of the purpose and audience for volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States. Is increased selectivity the best answer, or do we need to consider ways to make a larger number of records available using new technologies? The related issue of archival records management, particularly as that relates to computerized records, should also be considered by the new Historical Advisory Committee;

(VIII) The Advisory Committee utilized, on one occasion, the security clearances obtained in 1991 to review material proposed for publication in Foreign Relations but refused declassification. The Committee's recommendations facilitated a satisfactory resolution of the issue, illustrating that the new system can work effectively. The Committee recommends that the new Advisory Committee, working with the Historian and other agencies in accordance with the new legislation (sec. 403), develop procedures to deal with similar situations should they occur in the future;

(IX) The Advisory Committee recommends consideration of methods for making available to the public those records needed to insure that volumes of Foreign Relations already published constitute "a thorough, accurate, and reliable record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity," as now required by law and the Department's "Plan." For example, specific plans should be made to make available those records needed to make the volume on "Iran, 1951–54" meet the current standards; and there are others;

(X) The dramatically changed international scene makes it practical for the Department, and the entire foreign relations apparatus, to take a fresh look at previous policies that denied the American public access to large portions of the historical record. The new committee and the Department should consider developing proposals for the "blanket" declassification of all Department of State historical records that are currently thirty years old or older. A precedent for this came in 1971 when all such records for the era of the Second World War were released. This would not only save a great deal of money and resources, but would demonstrate that the Department and the Government are proud, not afraid, of the nation's history.

A key to the restoration of public confidence in the Foreign Relations series and overall Department policies regarding the historical record will be the support given the Historical Advisory Committee when other agencies refuse access for the Historian to records, refuse to declassify records requested for publication by the Historian, or refuse access to such records for the Advisory Committee. The sense of the Advisory Committee is that professional scholars and the general public discern progress, but they will be watching for concrete results.

I would be remiss not to praise the efforts of the Historical Office and the Bureau of Public Affairs—particularly Assistant Secretary Margaret Tutwiler, Deputy Assistant Secretaries Kim Hoggard, Grace Moe, and George Kennedy, and Dr. William Slany—to establish an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and trust between the Department and the Advisory Committee.

—Warren F. Kimball was 1990–91 Chair of the Advisory Committee on Historical Documentation and is a professor of history at Rutgers University.