NCC Advocacy Update, November 1999
Lawrence Small to Head the Smithsonian
On September 12 the Smithsonian announced the selection of Lawrence Small to become the new secretary of the Smithsonian, succeeding Michael Heyman, who announced his retirement plans in the spring. Small has served as president and chief operating officer of Fannie Mae, the government-chartered mortgage company, since 1991. Before that he was vice chair and chair of the executive committee of the boards of directors of Citicorp/Citibank, where he worked for 27 years. Small is a graduate and trustee emeritus of Brown University and has served on the boards of many cultural institutions, including the National Building Museum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial. He is an accomplished guitarist and has studied art and anthropology.
In speaking of his plans for the Smithsonian, Small said that he hoped to increase partnerships with institutions throughout the United States, noting that at any given time only 2 percent of the Smithsonian's collection is on display in its museums.
Last spring the Smithsonian initiated a national search for a new secretary to administer the vast organization comprising 16 museums and a zoo. With more than 30 million visitors a year and a $700 million plus budget, the Smithsonian is one of the most important cultural institutions in the country. Former Representative Barber Conable, speaking for the Smithsonian Board of Regents, said that he could not imagine a better person than Small to lead the Smithsonian in the next millennium. Most of the previous Smithsonian secretaries have been lawyers or academics. Small, with a background in banking, is thus expected to bring new perspectives to the office.
Update on the State Department Advisory Committee
At the September 13 quarterly meeting of the State Department's Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, William Slany, the Department of State historian, reported on a number of recent developments. He noted that a complete set of minutes of all 28 of the advisory committee's meetings (which have been held since the committee was created in 1992 by Public Law 102-138) would soon be posted on the State Department's web site. On the matter of the six vacancies in the historian's office, he said that progress was being made in filling these positions. However, the shortage of staff has meant that the State Department's Office of Policy/Planning will be taking the lead, instead of the History Office, in preparing a policy history of the recent Kosovo conflict. Slany alerted the committee to Secretary Madeleine Albright's interest in establishing a diplomacy museum. Some work on exhibits has already begun but outside money will need to be raised for the project to be fully launched.
A legislative staff person from the office of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) briefed the advisory committee on S. 22, the Government Secrecy Reform Act. Although this bill, which was introduced in 1998, received a fairly positive response last year from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, serious criticisms of the bill surfaced this spring and summer. These concerns centered on the projected costs of declassification, perceived dangers to national security from too much openness, and charges that the bill disregarded the constitutional provisions of the separation of powers. Thus Senator Moynihan is planning to scale back the initial legislation and reframe it as "The Public Interest Historical Review Act of 1999," which is still in the process of being drafted. The tentative plan is to introduce this bill before Congress adjourns this fall.
The final portion of the advisory committee meeting that was open to the public focused on electronic records. The committee received briefings from its own subcommittee, from the State Department's electronic records management specialists, and from the National Archives staff. Some of the discussion focused on the 1.3 million electronic records for the period 1973-75 that comprise the State Department's Central Foreign Policy File and include the telegrams and cables between Washington and the embassies and consulates abroad, which are highly valued by researchers. This will be the largest collection of textual records in electronic format transferred from a federal agency to the National Archives. Although staff from the National Archives reported that progress is being made, the National Archives currently does not have the hardware or the software to make these records available to researchers. The State Department's records management staff is therefore exploring an interim measure for making these accessible. They hope to post, in the not too distant future, the 1973-75 cables on the State Department's web site.
Another Setback for Declassification
Provisions in the House-Senate Conference Committee's Conference Report, H. Rep. 106-301, on S. 1059, the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2000, will sharply curtail current declassification efforts. In addition to a 75 percent cut in Pentagon funding for declassification, this legislation will have the effect of ending the practice of automatic declassification, a provision of Executive Order 12958 that many in the scholarly community considered one of its most important contributions. Executive Order 12958 gives agencies a five-year grace period to conduct a page-by-page review of potentially sensitive documents more than 25 years old, and calls for the automatic declassification of all the records that had not been reviewed after the grace period.
Because of the prohibitive costs of page-by-page review, the only way to tackle the enormous backlog of older classified material is a combination of page-by-page review of the very sensitive material and automatic declassification of less sensitive material. But the conference report expresses grave misgivings about automatic declassification, stating: "The conferees do not believe that it would be in the national security interest of the United States to declassify records that would otherwise remain classified, simply because the review of those records has not yet been completed."
As a result, the Conference Committee developed a procedure by which all records declassified under Executive Order 12958—except those that an agency head certifies as "highly unlikely" to contain sensitive nuclear weapons information—shall be rereviewed. As a practical matter, under these procedures only a few groups of Defense and Department of Energy records will be deemed as being "highly unlikely" to contain sensitive nuclear weapons information. Driven by a concern about "inadequate or incorrect declassification decisions" conferees would require a page-by-page review of large numbers of documents that have already been declassified under Executive Order 12958. This would require a massive project of rereviewing records, even though only a very few inappropriate declassification decisions have been identified, these are in extremely isolated circumstances, and no known damage resulted from their disclosure.
The legislation calls on the archivist and the secretary of energy to develop a plan for how to handle the rereview of the 600 million pages that have already been declassified under Executive Order 12958 and made available to the public. The groundswell in Congress for extreme caution toward all declassification efforts is reversing the progress of the last few years.
Effort to Make More Government Documents Available on the Internet
Recently Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) joined the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch in a news conference to highlight federal agency compliance with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which requires the availability of federal documents online and in other forms convenient to the public and the press. The event highlighted a recently released report that includes the "Ten Most Wanted Government Documents" requested by the public but not made available on the Internet. Number one on the list were Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on public and policy issues. These reports are currently available only to congressional offices. Senator McCain, who has introduced legislation to make CRS reports available on the Internet, stressed that "Taxpayers have footed the bill for these documents, and they have a right to see them."
The report of the most wanted documents resulted from a survey of reporters, researchers, librarians, government employees, activists, and ordinary citizens to find out what they had searched for on the Web but could not find. In addition to the Congressional Research Service reports, citizens said they want Supreme Court web site that included opinions and briefs, the State Department's Daily Briefing Book, the Environmental Protection Agency's Pesticide Safety Database, the full text of all congressional hearings, court briefs, and congressional votes in a searchable database, the Department of Interior's Endangered Species Recovery Plans, the Department of Commerce's Official Gazette of Trademarks, and Circuit Court web sites—only 5 of the 12 circuit courts of appeal have web sites that provide access to opinions at no cost.
Additional information on "The Ten Most Wanted Government Documents" and on the policy recommendations for achieving access to these documents may be found on the Center for Democracy and Technology's web page at http://www.cdt.org/righttoknow/10mostwanted.
Page Putnam Miller is executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.
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