Preserving American Foreign Relations Records
Debbie Doyle, September 2015
The Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation Releases Its 2014 Report
The controversy over the preservation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail during her time as secretary of state is only the tip of a vast iceberg of concerns about preserving the historical records of American foreign policy and diplomacy. The Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation to the Department of State (HAC, for its short name, Historical Advisory Committee) works with the government to ensure that historians have a voice in decisions affecting the preservation of that historical record. HAC, which has included a representative of the American Historical Association since its founding in 1991, recently issued its 2014 report. As the Clinton controversy suggests, the rise of electronic communication in the late 20th century poses a huge challenge for the archivists and historians charged with preserving and maintaining access to government records in the electronic age.
The State Department Office of the Historian is preparing to publish the records of the Reagan administration. It is thus a few years away from the explosion in the production of records that took place with the rise of e-mail in the 1990s. HAC chair and AHA delegate Richard H. Immerman (Temple Univ.) explains, “The public and the historical community don’t fully appreciate the magnitude or the challenge of these electronic records. The volume is just staggering—we are talking into the billions. Just capturing the e-mails, let alone processing them, is a real challenge, and considering that they are already behind in processing, just think how difficult it will be.”
The HAC was authorized in 1991 to monitor and advise on the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, the official documentary history of US foreign policy decisions and diplomatic activity, as well as to monitor procedures for declassifying State Department documents. The committee’s members are appointed by the AHA and other professional associations in history, and represent constituencies such as archivists, political scientists, and legal scholars; there are also three at-large members.
The State Department is legally required to release volumes in the FRUS series within 30 years of the events they document. Due in part to the exponential increase in the volume of government records created since the late 20th century and the difficulty of declassifying material, the State Department has never met that 30-year target. The upcoming release of the first volume in the series relating to the Reagan administration reduces the average time to publication to 35 years, demonstrating continued progress toward reaching the goal. Immerman notes that the State Department is “holding its own” against the volume of records and is ahead of other agencies in managing and processing 20th-century records, but staff are aware that they are approaching a tipping point.
But the Office of the Historian has earned the HAC’s praise for its efforts to bring its publishing program into the electronic age through the digital release of 20 volumes in the FRUS series, covering 1948 to 1951. The office has also improved its outreach to the public through its website and social media, publishing a series of essays, Milestones in the History of US Foreign Relations, and an index to diplomatic archives around the world.
Yet the HAC remains concerned about the pace and progress of declassification throughout the federal government. Executive Order 13526, issued in December 2009, mandates the declassification of records over 25 years old—unless, as the report puts it, “valid and compelling reasons can be specified for withholding them.” A backlog remains, despite significant efforts by the State Department and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Some of the delay relates to the many other agencies that must review information before it can be declassified. Agencies that were involved in creating documents, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and all other Executive Office agencies involved in the conduct of US foreign relations, must review material before it can be declassified. The report notes that the Kyl-Lott Amendment to the 1999 Defense Appropriations Act, which “requires a secondary review by the Department of Energy of every document, irrespective of its originating agency, believed to contain nuclear-related information,” has significantly slowed the declassification process. A separate mandate to review all declassified material for personally identifying information poses additional challenges.
Immerman praises the staff of NARA for their sensitivity to the historical community’s concerns about the backlog and for their continued efforts to respond to and mitigate problems. According to Immerman, a survey that HAC and the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations conducted in 2014, in which nearly 800 historians expressed grave concern about the growing backlog in processing and declassifying records, played a “critical” role in increasing NARA’s awareness of historians’ concerns.
However, the HAC report cautions that “underfunding, understaffing, the increased volume of documents, and the rising number of electronic documents” mean that “without an infusion of funding NARA cannot fulfill its mission.” Immerman explains that NARA is plagued by a “continuing lack of resources—funding, staffing, availability of technology, ability to develop and purchase technology—and, quite literally, space, both for the paper records, which are still mammoth, and the infrastructure to house and make available the explosion of electronic records.” He adds that Congress needs to find the will and support to provide adequate funding for the preservation of the historical record, which is essential for civic life and for the nation.
The full report is available online at historians.org/2015-hac.
Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s coordinator, committees and meetings.
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