Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, December 14-15, 2009
Open Session, December 14
Approval of the Record of the September 2009 Meeting
Robert McMahon opened the meeting at 1:35 p.m. by calling for the nomination of a chairman. The committee nominated McMahon and his appointment was unanimously approved. The record of the September 2009 meeting was then approved without further comments. In accepting chairmanship for another year, McMahon said that this would be his last term as chairman.
Report by the Executive Secretary
Assistant Secretary Crowley wished the Committee Happy Holidays. He mentioned the Inspector General’s (IG) recent inspection of the Bureau of Public Affairs, and that he had a first draft of the report and shared some of the points with the committee. The IG had recognized positive changes made under Ambassador Brynn. The office working groups’ reports had been helpful, but matters like additional office space, storage of classified materials, and dynamics were still pending. Not having been able to hire a General Editor after the job was posted had been a setback for the office. Secretary of State Clinton had earlier asked for a review of contractors’ roles in the Department. The Office of the Historian had used them effectively and had been able to integrate them into full-time employee status. Ambassador Brynn had recommended that an Ambassador should head the office. Crowley said that he planned to visit the office in the weeks ahead, and complimented the staff on its teamwork.
Ambassador Brynn thanked all the staff for their support. He reported to the committee that General Editor candidates had been identified and the search would continue. Also, the office would be involved in choosing the next Historian. Brynn also thanked Margaret Morrissey for her administrative services. Brynn said that a conference on Vietnam FRUS volumes had been discussed over lunch. Before his departure at 1:54 p.m., Assistant Secretary Crowley said that he hoped to find ways to bring history alive, to exploit new media and to make use of “smart people.” Chairman McMahon then turned the floor over to Deputy Historian David Herschler.
Status Reports by the Deputy Historian and Acting General Editor
Herschler gave a brief summary of staffing changes since the last meeting. He then gave a report of various outreach activities by the staff, including: HO delegations to the 10th International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents, held at The Hague, presentation of the office exhibit and a workshop on historical educational video and curriculum materials at the annual meeting of the National Council on the Social Studies, and a variety of presentations by staff members at historical conferences.
Herschler noted that 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the FRUS series and suggested that HO staff develop papers and conference presentations to mark the occasion. Herschler then detailed recent office staff conference presentations and appearances under DOS auspices, adding that the office planned a strong showing and recruitment effort at the January 2010 American Historical Association conference.
Herschler then provided some general background regarding the process of declassification for FRUS volumes, focusing in particular on the High Level Panel (HLP) process. There have been several major factors impacting the declassification of intelligence information for publication in the series since enactment of the 1991 FRUS statute but none has been more important than the establishment of a HLP to address the declassification of historical covert activities and other sensitive covert intelligence information.
In the 11 years since inception of the HLP process, 44 separate covert actions contained in 31 FRUS volumes have been acknowledged and declassified for publication through the HLP process, with only a couple of proposed covert actions rejected for acknowledgement by the HLP. Herschler noted that the office believes this has been a uniquely positive achievement. However, even in the best of circumstances, the HLP process adds a year to the declassification time for a volume. Negotiations over the decision to acknowledge and, particularly, over the declassification guidelines upon which documentation can be released, often are protracted. Moreover, once the NSC has signed an agreed issue statement and declassification guidelines, differences between CIA declassification reviewers and the Office of the Historian regarding the relevant documentation often require one or more 60-day statutory appeal sequences before final declassification agreement is reached.
Herschler then noted that under a 2002 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) designed to seek ways to better understand and codify the manner in which CIA handles its responsibilities--both in providing access to intelligence documentation and in the declassification process, State and CIA have experienced ever improving levels of cooperation, which has resulted in a significant decrease in the time for CIA declassification review of FRUS manuscripts. Nevertheless, protracted negotiations over HLP issues persist. At the end of the day, the office and the committee often face the choice between accelerating publication or fighting for the most extensive level of declassification permissible under the law and existing regulations in order to ensure a thorough and accurate volume. Inevitably--at least thus far--that choice has been thoroughness and accuracy over timeliness.
Bill McAllister opened a discussion of declassification issues in the office. McAllister stated that though the 1991 statute was helpful, current results had been “tough-fought.” The average time for declassifying a volume is three years, an improvement over the pre-statute pace of 6-10 years. From the office’s perspective, the biggest issue with declassification is intelligence information, with nothing more important than the HLP to address documents relating to covert action. Forty-four covert actions in 31 volumes were cleared through this process. While this is positive, the HLP does add about one year to the declassification process. Differences between the CIA and the office review processes often mean one or more 60 day reviews. Personnel changes at the CIA and a 2002 improvement of the HLP have allowed re-reviews of material that was previously deemed classified, but such processes are still being implemented. McAllister stated that the office and the committee often face the choice of FRUS being thorough and accurate versus publishing in a timely fashion.
Status of Declassification of Department of State Records
Marvin Russell reported that the Systematic Review Program had achieved its core annual goal of completing the declassification review of 25 year old records, as required by Executive Order 12958. With respect to the State Archiving System (SAS) electronic cables, review of the 1984 classified cables was done and review of the 1985 cables would begin shortly, after completion of work on the 1984 Limited Official Use (LOU) cables. The 1977 electronic cables were transferred to NARA on June 23, 2009. The 1978 and 1979 electronic cables had been sent to three agencies for vetting in March 2008. Two agencies had completing their vetting in 2008, but State is still awaiting feedback from the third agency.
Closed Session, December 14
Issues Relating to the Declassification and Opening of Records at the National Archives
Michael Carlson spoke on behalf of electronic records at NARA. He noted that the plan for reviewing the 1973–1975 cables was contingent on finishing 1976 first. The 1976 cables were nearly done, but NATO information needs to be pulled out. This should be done by January 2010. They have started processing 1973–1975 cables to include the previously unscheduled cables that are now designated as permanent. By the end of the year in 2009, they should be able to identify what cables need to be added. They will then pass them on to the declassification staff for review. It will take, at most, 4-6 months for the staff to review these cables, and at that point they will be made available to place up on AAD.
Immerman asked what procedures are in place for the archiving of electronic records. Carlson responded that, as with other records, electronic records are appraised, scheduled, and retired. ERA is not yet fully operational, but represents a “hopeful solution” to the electronic records problem. Immerman asked if ERA would work retrospectively. Carlson responded that ERA does not “capture” anything; it is the responsibility of the agencies to send materials to NARA. Peterson asked about video conferencing. Carlson responded that he wasn’t sure about video conferencing specifically. Sibley asked if agencies were aware that they needed to be preserving electronic records. Carlson said that this is covered by the Federal Records Act, so agencies should be aware. McAllister interjected that he will be having a panel at AHA on this very topic. Langbart noted that the problem here is no different than with paper records: NARA cannot solve this issue by itself; agencies have to cooperate and provide their records. NARA is not the “records police”: it provides guidance, but cannot force people to pay attention.
Sibley asked if NARA is already seeing a decrease in the amount of paper thanks to the growth of electronic records. Langbart responded that NARA is not yet accessioning files from the period of the growth of electronic records.
Don McIlwain announced that all 214 feet of P-Reel printouts and Oversize Enclosures for 1975 are complete and available. Together with other records, a total of 420 feet of State Department records are newly open. He discussed the National Declassification Center and the forthcoming Executive Order on declassification. He stated that he hoped the National Declassification Center would have a web presence and an e-mail box.
John Powers began by discussing the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), inviting feedback. He discussed the forthcoming Executive Order, stating that the current interim order is still based on the WWII-era approach to information, restricting information on the basis of "need to know." He stated that all recognized that a new model is needed, and the Board is considering what form such a model would take. He requested feedback on this issue. He discussed the current status of the executive order--that the interagency policy review was complete, and was now being sent back to the chiefs of staff of the agencies. He stated that there were substantive differences from the August draft, and that the new Executive Order will address reclassification, precedent setting, and the Presidential Daily Briefs.
Peterson inquired about the Open Government Initiative, and Powers responded that he could not address that issue, but that the OGI did mandate that the FOIA backlog be reduced.
In response to questions about the Executive Order, Powers expanded his earlier statement about the new model for information control. He said that the future Order would move away from a "need to know" basis toward a "responsibility to provide" basis for sharing information. In the current age, he stated, there needs to be more information sharing across agencies, and decision makers need to have access to all relevant information.
In response to Peterson’s question about whether "born-digital" documents would be easier to track through the review process, McIlwain states that the Department of State is ahead in this respect; it sends declassification decisions with the document, instead of separately. Powers added that ISOO sees the Department of State's methods as a best practice.
The CIA and the Foreign Relations Series
The CIA representative opened the session by stating that there had been relatively few developments in the past three months. Seven volumes, all with issue statements and some long-standing, are now undergoing review. Two HLP statements are in the process of going to the NSC. Five manuscripts are currently in various stages of review with the NCS. Herschler responded that he appreciated the time and effort of the CIA staff, especially regarding the HLP volumes.
Herschler reported the steps taken by the office to hire a new Joint Historian. In the meantime, a new member of the office staff would informally assist with some of the tasks usually performed by the Joint Historian. Since the last meeting two volumes had been verified with the CIA. The CIA was also re-reviewing a small number of documents from some volumes. The office was also preparing two additional appeals to CIA. Concerning volumes with HLP issues, five had been with the CIA for more than a year and three for more than two years. The office and the CIA have taken measures to expedite the long HLP process, but this new framework needs to be tested with an appropriate new manuscript.
The committee discussed the Iran Retrospective volume with the CIA representatives.
The committee discussed with the CIA representatives why some documents continued to have declassification problems after being verified. The committee went on to question the CIA representatives about the role of the National Security Council in the appeals process.
Several members of the committee expressed their displeasure with what they saw as a lack of consistency in the CIA review process. Members described situations in which the CIA redacted more information during the appeals process as akin to the CIA “getting a second bite at the apple” and as “random.” The CIA representative replied that this had to do with the unusual nature of the Iran Retrospective volume, its long and complicated history, which meant that reviewers had to re-learn the release decisions that had been made as many as 4-5 years earlier, long before they were working FRUS issues.
Closed Session, December 15
Documentation Withheld from Recently Reviewed Foreign Relations Manuscripts
The committee discussed specific declassification issues with the Chief of the Declassification and Publishing Division and the Acting General Editor.
The Future of the Foreign Relations Series
The office staff engaged in a wide-ranging and candid discussion with the committee about the most efficient process for reviewing FRUS manuscripts, especially those that are now backlogged in the office.
The meeting was then adjourned and the committee went into Executive Session.