Foreign Affairs

Conference on the Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History

Session I

Transparency: The State Department's Historical Advisory Committee in the Post-Cold War Era
Robert D. Schulzinger
Department of History
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO 80309

Paper prepared for delivery at the conference on
The Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History
National Archives II, College Park, Maryland
September 25, 1998

Copyright 1998 by Robert D. Schulzinger

If it were possible to use a single word to characterize the single American value most esteemed world-wide in the post-Cold War era, that word would be "transparency." In economics, politics and social life transparency implies that information should be widely and equally held. It requires that people conduct their affairs openly, honestly and according to reasonable rules. Until at least the Asian economic crisis of last summer and this summer's sea of world wide troubles, there was widespread agreement (although some of it was grudging) that these values of openness and the rule of law might lead the world into a new era of unprecedented prosperity. The problems of the past year may prove to be either a temporary interruption to this generally benign development, or, more ominously, they may indicate that advocates of a new paradigm of liberal democratic capitalism after the Cold War were arrogantly optimistic.

In any event, proponents of the greatest possible openness and transparency in public affairs have crafted a compelling argument for the widest possible dissemination of complete, full and accurate information. As the Moynihan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy reported in 1997, "Greater openness permits more public understanding of the Government's actions and also makes it more possible for the Government to respond to criticism and respond to those actions. . . . [B]y allowing for a fuller understanding of the past, it provides opportunities to learn lessons from what has gone on before--making it easier to resolve issues concerning the Government's past actions and helping prepare for the future."Note 1 Simply put, more information leads to better public decisions and, eventually, greater public respect for decisions-makers. In other words, transparency of information helps foster legitimacy of public institutions.

The work of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation (the Historical Advisory Committee or HAC) of the U.S. State Department indicates how the value of transparency and openness of information has worked in practice in the United States in the post-Cold War era. Congress created the HAC in 1991 after a furious public uproar over the glaring omissions of reference to U.S. covert actions to overthrow the governments of Iran and Guatemala in volumes of the State Department's compilation of diplomatic documents, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). Since its initiation in 1925, FRUS had justifiably been lauded as the world standard for documentary collections. The regular publication of FRUS volumes had furthermore signaled the opening in the National Archives of millions of pages of other documents not included in the FRUS. With the growth of other agencies participating in foreign relations during the Cold War, however, inclusion of simply State Department records in the FRUS gave a limited view of the nature of U.S. foreign policy. The omission of any reference to such widely known episodes as the CIA's efforts to replace the governments of Iran and Guatemala, threatened to tarnish the hard won reputation of the FRUS and the State Department's Historical Office (HO).

To help the HO restore the FRUS as the indisputable source for an accurate record of U.S. foreign policy, Congress established the HAC. It is a group of nine private citizens expert in either research in diplomatic documents or in their archival preservation. The HAC is required by law to meet at least quarterly and advise the Historian of the State Department on how to make the FRUS a full, complete and accurate record of U.S. foreign relations. The HAC has an active and energetic chair (Warren Kimball) and its members have security clearances. They are able to survey relevant unpublished, classified documents to determine their suitability for publication in FRUS. Congress has also given the HAC looser but still real authority to assure that unpublished documents more than twenty-five years old related to the foreign relations of the United States are made public in the archives. In 1995, four years after congress created the HAC, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12958 requiring government agencies to make public documents more than twenty-five years old by April 1, 2000 unless they could show cause why they should remain secret.

When it comes to the inclusion of classified material in the FRUS volumes, the members of the HAC operate on the principle that activities more than twenty-five years old should be made public. They acknowledge instances where these actions should be kept secret for longer. But a case has to be made by some responsible government agency every time some document is to remain hidden from the public. To convince the HAC that documents should remain classified, an agency has to show credible evidence that publication will do real harm to present foreign policy or actually endanger the safety of someone living. If publication results in disclosures that simply prove to be embarrassing to someone, that potential embarrassment is not enough to convince the HAC that a document should remain classified. Moreover, as the HAC has seen more and more classified materials, many members have concluded that publication of the actual record reveals that the United States conducted a foreign policy that was less discreditable than sensational accounts suggested. In sum, the HAC operates on the principle that transparency trumps secrecy, and truth beats innuendo.

These are high minded principles and sensible practical guidelines to publish the record while retaining legitimate secrets. How has the system worked in practice? Is there now a fuller record of U.S. foreign relations? Is the FRUS still the unquestioned standard in the world for accurate complete compilation of a nation's foreign policy? Will the unpublished documentary record of U.S. foreign relations more than twenty-five years old be available to researchers in the archives by April 1, 2000?

The answer to all is an unequivocal yes, but. Progress has occurred, but it has been more uneven and sometimes slower than the original advocates of transparency in documenting the history of U.S. foreign relations hoped or expected in the heady days of the beginning of the post-Cold War era. Both the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency employ staffs of accomplished historians dedicated to publishing a complete and accurate record of U.S. foreign relations. Archivists at NARA and the foreign affairs agencies are committed to making records more than twenty-five years old available. But foreign affairs agencies are made up of a lot of people who are not historians and archivists. Many of them remain deeply skeptical about the value of revealing old secrets. The HAC and other advocates of transparency have waged a painstakingly slow campaign to convince doubters that the opening of records is not just a legal requirement, but something worthwhile in its own.

In the last several years the HAC has supported the staff of the HO in their efforts to gain access to classified records in agencies other than the State Department. Most, but not all of this work has taken place in files of the CIA previously off-limits to HO staff members. In the last several years the HO historians have formed good working relations with their counterparts in the CIA. It's very important to remember the actual compiling of the FRUS volumes is done by the staff of dedicated professional historians in the HO. The Historical Advisory Committee is just that, an advisory committee made up of private citizens who do their own research, often relying on the FRUS. But the FRUS itself is the product of the HO.

The volumes published since 1991 contain a much richer record of U.S. foreign relations than most that were published before. FRUS has now published nearly all the volumes on the Eisenhower administration, and most of those on the Kennedy administration. It has begun publishing the records from 1964--1968, and has virtually completed work on others in that period. They include the whole range of U.S. foreign operations--political, economic, cultural, and intelligence. So do the volumes compiled but not cleared for publication since 1991.

And therein lies the core of the problem. The FRUS has developed a huge backlog of volumes ready for publication but not yet cleared. HO's staff historians have dug more deeply than ever before and found more and more material which previously would have been excluded from publication in the FRUS. The fruits of their research need to be approved by higher authorities in the foreign affairs agencies. If approval is granted, FRUS will appear and be fuller, more complete and accurate than ever before. But if the volumes are not approved, or if deletions are demanded, the series will be in worse shape than before 1991. Either volumes will not see the light of day, effectively stopping the series. Or the HAC will be in the impossible position of endorsing the publication of a record of U.S. foreign relations they know to be less than full, complete and accurate. The HAC has threatened (and there's really no more polite way of putting it) to state publicly that a volume of the FRUS does not meet the standards of completeness and accuracy called for in the 1991 legislation if crucial documents are not included in the published version.

There is perhaps an even graver problem that confronts the HO compilers. As they have obtained greater access to previously closed material, they have been able to produce fuller records in the FRUS. But like all historians, they want their work published. They face an exquisite dilemma. The more they press to see classified material, the better the work they will produce. At the same time however, the more difficult it may be to publish their compilations of documents. Delays in publication of FRUS volumes caused by refusal to declassify can subtly cause the HO researchers to be less inquisitive in the future. They might reason that if they don't uncover important classified documents and ask that they be included, it will be easier to publish what they do find. Then, of course, the FRUS will not be as complete, accurate, and full a record as it should be.

In 1997 the FRUS series approached a crisis. Over twenty-five volumes had been completed by researchers, but they were not cleared for publication. Unless they are cleared for publication by February 1999, less than six months from now, the FRUS will fail to meet the thirty-year standard of publication the HO has worked with as a practical substitute for the ideal of publication twenty-five years after events. Since only about three volumes of FRUS per year have been approved for publication recently, it is hard to be optimistic that suddenly more than twenty will be released in six months.

Faced with what seemed to be an impending shipwreck in late 1997, the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council (the three agencies most directly involved in passing judgment on classified material in the FRUS) tried to break the logjam. They created a High Level Panel (HLP) made up of representatives from each agency to certify whether a FRUS volume could refer to specific past covert activities. HO would prepare a brief summary of the operation and the documents included in a proposed volume for review by the HLP. If it approved, the relevant documents might be published. (The key issue often for the CIA was whether the cover activity in question could be officially acknowledged. During the Bush administration, Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates had acknowledge eleven covert operations since 1947. The CIA was reluctant to publish documents referring to any more covert activities unless some higher authority acknowledged their existence.) The HLP met several times in 1998. It agreed that fifteen episodes could be revealed. The decision was unanimous. The HO is now working with the CIA to assure that actual documents can be published in these FRUS volumes. Fifteen episodes may not sound like a lot. But the HLP has set an important precedent that gives some hope that the logjam can break, more volumes of the new FRUS will see the light of day, and the habits of automatic secrecy will diminish.

My characterization of a "habit of secrecy" (a phrase I've borrowed from the HAC's chairman Warren Kimball) represents a subtle but real improvement over a "culture of secrecy" which previously prevailed in some agencies, notably the CIA. This change is evident in the regular meetings the HAC has with representatives from the CIA. These exchanges occur in closed sessions of the regularly scheduled quarterly meetings of the HAC, in more confidential meetings of subcommittees of the HAC at the CIA's declassification factory, and at meetings between the HAC's chairman and the CIA's historical advisory committee. In the old days, CIA representatives from both its historical staff and higher authorities expressed grave doubts about the work of the HO. At one time an agency official objected to historians from the HO "going on a fishing expedition in our files." One official's fishing expedition is an HO historian's research trip. At another moment someone from CIA explained that the destruction of records of earlier covert operations should be of little concern to the HO or historians outside the government, because all that had been lost were "details and anecdotes" while the outline of the operation in question were known. Since historians from Herodotus o, say, Mel Leffler, to take at random one recent member of the HAC, have lived by including just such telling details and anecdotes, this explanation was not reassuring.

In 1998 that attitude changed in a subtle but important way. The CIA historians and HO historians acknowledge that they are both engaged in the same enterprise--the preservation and publication of the documentary record of U.S. foreign relations. When CIA officials talk to the HAC, they no longer complain about the aggressive intrusions of HO historians. Instead, they point out that there are still officials in the agency, most notably the Directorate of Operations (DO), who harbor grave doubts about the law and the executive order requiring publication of a full and complete record in the FRUS and the opening of twenty-five year old records in the archives. The difference is this: In the old days the CIA presented a solid front limiting access of HO historians and slowing the process of declassification. Nowadays, the historians at CIA and the people in charge of declassification note that they, the HO, and the HAC are all engaged in the same enterprise. They need to work together to convince others in the CIA to have the confidence necessary to open the records.

In recent years the CIA's representatives have tried another approach as well with the HO and the HAC--cooperation and charm. The historical staff at the CIA has been as open as they can be, given the habits of secrecy in allowing access to the agency's records. They still won't let HO historians see the agency's shelf list of records, but they will let them sit with a CIA historian and try to access the agency's records by using key words. As one CIA official, who's first name is William and who referred to himself in a briefing to the HAC as "Sweet Old Bill" (SOB) put it "I don't even trust myself to see the shelf list." As another explained in a meeting of the HAC, the historical community has to realize that the historians and records managers at CIA, who want to comply with the law and the executive order, engender grave suspicions and doubts in the DO.

Nonetheless, the law is the law; the executive order is the stated policy of the government. The State Department and the CIA are going to comply in one fashion or another. The government is not going to declassify over 25 volumes of the FRUS in the next six months, but the creation of the HLP has broken the logjam. The CIA now has an institutional apparatus in place committed to preservation, opening and publication of records. These offices are now as much a part of the agency as any others.

Just as important is the work of NARA, headed by John Carlin, the Archivist of the United States who understands the importance of openness for a republic. When President Clinton nominated Carlin, the former governor of Kansas, to be archivist, historians and professional archivists expressed dismay. But events proved them wrong. A man with a background in running for office was precisely the right choice to preserve and make available the records of the government. Carlin speaks passionately about the need to make records available to restore public trust in public institutions. NARA is committed to make that happen.

So are the HAC and the hundreds of historians and archivists working in the federal government. As the April 1, 2000 deadline for declassification of records more than twenty-five years old approaches, there are bound to be detours and bumps in the road. But the HAC's experience since 1991 gives many reasons realistically to expect the twenty-first century will be an era of far greater openness and transparency in government decisionmaking and record keeping than the period of the Cold War..End Notes

1. Moynihan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Secrecy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1997), p. xxi.[Back]

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