Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation September 12-13, 2011
Open Session, September 12
Approval of the Record of the June 2011 Meeting
The committee approved the minutes of the March meeting.
Report by the Executive Secretary
Assistant Secretary Hammer commended the Office of the Historian (HO) for closing out the remaining recommendations from the Inspection Report. He expressed his commitment to the continued integration of HO into the wider PA family and warned of the challenging budget environment moving forward.
Ambassador Brynn thanked Hammer for his support. He then announced promotions of Kristin Ahlberg, Assistant to the General Editor, and Myra Burton, Chief of the Africa and Americas Division, and said that the hiring of a new General Editor was imminent. He then discussed the office relocation planning and 150th anniversary FRUS commemoration planning.
Status Reports by the Deputy Historian
Immerman opened the session by thanking retiring contract historian John Collinge for his exceptional work and years of service in the declassification field.
David Herschler began with a brief update on FRUS publishing and declassification. The office had published two volumes since the June meeting: Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973; and Southern Africa, 1969-76 for a total of 3 volumes thus far in calendar year 2011. The latter volume’s compiler, Myra Burton, would be discussing her volume as part of an upcoming panel at the Wilson Center. The office anticipated publishing up to four more volumes by the end of calendar year 2011.
The office completed the declassification of five manuscripts since the June 2011 meeting, bringing the total to nine manuscripts declassified thus far in calendar year 2011. The office anticipated completing declassification on one or two more manuscripts by the end of the calendar year.
With respect to office staffing activities, the office had welcomed three newly appointed historians: Elizabeth Charles (Ph.D., The George Washington University) and James Wilson (Ph.D., University of Virginia) to the Europe Division, and Daniel Rubin (Ph.D. University of Maryland) to the Middle East and Asia Division. Also, the office had selected an outstanding candidate for the General Editor post who was expected to come on board around the end of September.
The Office completed the selection process for the two new positions approved under the Office partial reorganization proposal. Myra Burton was appointed as chief of the newly reorganized Africa and Americas Division, and Kristin Ahlberg was appointed as Assistant to the General Editor. These appointments, when combined with the appointment of the General Editor, will virtually double the number of managers who review FRUS manuscripts, which should pay both short-term and long-term dividends towards expediting the FRUS production process.
Herschler then praised John Collinge on all his hard work in the office.
Since the June meeting, members of the Office had engaged in a host of activities relating to the commemoration of the FRUS sesquicentennial, including two panels at the 2011 annual meeting of SHAFR. Herschler also mentioned that the FRUS sesquicentennial would be a focal point of a full session at the 11th biennial International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents, to be held in Jerusalem. Josh Botts would be presenting the conference Keynote address at this session.
Immerman then called on each of the FRUS Division Chiefs for reports.
Adam Howard said that the Office is increasing the number of people who will be reviewing volumes, in order to get more of them through the review process more quickly. In order to meet the publication plan for the Reagan volumes, the office is also reducing the overall number of compilers per division in order to speed along the review process and keep each reviewer “fresh.”
David Geyer briefed the committee on the reorganization plan for the office. The reorganization involved transferring staff between the FRUS divisions. Regarding his own division, compilers were planning to complete the research for the Arms Control and Soviet volumes all at once. While this might delay the completion of the first of those volumes, in the long run it would reduce the amount of time spent on research and would thus accelerate the publication of all related volumes.
Kathy Rasmussen said that her division was currently working on two administrations, finishing up the Carter volumes and beginning the Reagan years. She was in consultations with the Reagan Presidential Library and NARA to facilitate the Reagan research. She thought that it might be possible to front-load that research in DC.
Myra Burton said that new compilers in her division would begin their in-office training in October. Also, the office was continuing to work with the office of Real Property Management on the office relocation. A brief discussion with the committee ensued about the office relocation.
The committee then discussed hiring specifics regarding open positions with the FRUS managers.
Immerman asked about the status of Carter volumes and Rasmussen said that almost all would be compiled by the end of 2012, although some volumes, such as European Security, overlap between Carter and Reagan.
Status of Declassification of Department of State Records
Susan Weetman introduced the new chief of the Paper Review Branch, Jeff Charlston, who will update the committee at a future meeting on the progress of IPS processing of paper records. Weetman presented a chart summarizing the processing the various parts of the Department's Central Foreign Policy File that the committee requested at the June meeting. She then surveyed some of the more notable achievements from IPS, which included progress in processing of both the electronic and paper records. Weetman informed the Committee that IPS has completed review of the State Archiving System (SAS) classified electronic cables through 1986, as well as the P-reel indices of all classifications through 1987. IPS transferred the 1978 electronic cables to NARA on June 30 and was preparing the remaining materials for transfer. Weetman also noted that NARA will soon recommend a plan for future transfers. She stated that the paper records through 1985 have been reviewed, and the office is currently working on the 1986-1990 record block. Weetman stated that the N-reels through 1977 have been reviewed and the 1978 and 1979 N-reels have been converted to paper and are being prepared for review. IPS has also completed the review of the P-reel paper printouts through 1979 and is awaiting receipt of the 1980-1981 printouts.
Robert McMahon said that despite this progress IPS seemed to be trending toward a 35-year line, not a 30-year line. He asked when, if ever, this could be lowered to the mandated 30-year line. Charlston responded that the office was nearing a "turning point" for paper records, but at the heart of the matter this was a manpower issue: there are only so many staff to process the material, and at a minimum, they are keeping pace rather than falling behind. He acknowledged that at this point it might not be feasible to close this 5-year gap.
Herschler asked where the National Declassification Center (NDC) might factor in to improving efficiencies in this regard. Charlston responded that the NDC is a clearinghouse which coordinates agency reviews and therefore streamlines the overall process. Weetman noted that the NDC is involved with electronic review issues as well. She stated that the previous ISOO director, Jay Bosanko, informed IPS that they no longer needed to subject the electronic cables to the three agency review before transferring them to NARA, as the NDC staff will do this as part of their overall processing of e-records.
Bill McAllister asked if it was true that the 30-year line meant that the records were actually open to researchers 30 years after their creation. McMahon said that researchers themselves were wondering about this, and that, when one factors in all the steps in the declassification and processing pipeline, the line is closer to 40 years. Richard Immerman said that the issue is that without more resources the timeline will not improve. Charlston agreed.
David Langbart explained that when NARA receives materials they still contain classified information. It is NARA staff that does the "switch-out" so they can be made publicly available. He assured the committee that Department of State materials are of the highest priority.
Trudy Peterson sought further clarification of information contained in the chart. Weetman assured her that the committee will remain informed regarding further progress of IPS and the transfer process of materials to NARA. Peterson asked Langbart to elaborate on his role in this process. Langbart noted that there is both archival and declassification processing; these are not the same issue.
Immerman brought up the experience of a researcher who had grown frustrated at the slow pace of the process and noted this individual was clearly not alone. From the researcher's perspective this process remains somewhat opaque. Langbart responded that indeed the process has changed over the years, and that generally researchers, who grow accustomed to the way things are, simply need to ask staff for additional guidance.
Closed Session, September 12
FRUS Research at Reagan Presidential Library
Alex Wieland, David Zielrer and Avi Rubin discussed their trip to the Reagan Library and the challenges the office would face in performing research there.
Efforts to Meet the 30-Year Line
Josh Botts presented his research on the office’s attempts at meeting the 30-year line over the course of last few decades. A lively discussion ensued about the bottlenecks in the declassification and publishing process and how they could be overcome.
Closed Session, September 13
Issues Relating to the Declassification and Opening of Records at the National Archives
Don McIlwain (NARA) provided an update of the National Declassification Center's (NDC's) effort to eliminate the 400 million page backlog of documents needing declassification review at NARA. McIlwain explained that tackling this task was a multi-step process, and he spoke specifically about two aspects of this process: evaluation and the new DOD Joint Referral Center.
McIlwain explained that records in the backlog have all been reviewed once by the originating agency, but that the quality of those reviews—which were undertaken over a broad time range depending on when the records were retired—has been quite varied. The purpose of evaluation (and the evaluation team), then, is to do a sample of each accession in the backlog to determine if the initial review was adequate. The evaluation team includes members of NARA, the Intelligence Community, DOE, and the originating agency, so that each accession only has to go through one evaluation review.
McIlwain also briefly described the DOD Joint Referral Center, which was designed to break the cycle of repeated reviews of the same records by the different military services or sub- elements of DOD and JCS.
On the overall work of the NDC, McIlwain explained that the goal was to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2013. He reported that, currently, 129 million of the 400 million pages have gone through evaluation, and 20 million pages have made it completely through the declassification review process. Of those 20 million pages, a little under 19 million were declassified. McIlwain stated that the NDC felt that this was a good story.
McIlwain also noted the NDC's emphasis on better communication with the public, referencing (and encouraging participation in) the NDC blog and the NDC's public forum sessions.
McIlwain also reported on "his part" of the NDC, FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and MDR (mandatory declassification review) declassification requests. An outside contractor recently examined the processes used for FOIA and MDR, with a focus on finding the most efficient way to close old, outstanding cases. McIlwain noted the use of technology as a help in this regard, and reported that while 55 cases had been closed in the previous quarter, 78 cases had been closed in the most recent quarter, a significant improvement.
Returning to the overall operations of the NDC, McIlwain stated that they stress "continuous learning" and the idea that processes can always be improved. Returning to the uneven quality of originating agency reviews, McIlwain noted that DOE is particularly concerned about this issue, especially vis-a-vis the requirements of Kyl-Lott review. He also noted that if he had his own way, he would reform the Kyl-Lott review process to remove certain kinds of historical data from FRD (formerly-restricted data), and therefore from the Kyl-Lott review process.
McMahon asked about the idea of setting a 30-year line by which all "FRUS-able" archival documentation would be made available in the Archives 30 years after the date of the documentation. More specifically, McMahon stated, he wondered if the standard for withholding classified documentation at NARA was the same as it was for withholding classified information in FRUS. McIlwain answered that reviewers at NARA work for the same agencies as the agencies that review FRUS, and they operate under the same executive order, so the reviews should be the same. McIlwain added the caveat, however, that he is not familiar with the declassification review process for FRUS.
Peterson asked a follow-up question regarding the report made yesterday in the open session that the Department of State had joined a joint declassification referral center initiated by DOD. Peterson expressed concern that records at NARA were being shipped out to this new center for review after they had already been accessioned to NARA. McIlwain confirmed that records were in fact shipped out (to Fort Belvoir), but commented that a NARA employee is on site monitoring the review of the records there.
Sibley asked how NARA and the NDC were planning to avoid the recurrence of past FRD-related issues that have delayed the release of records. McIlwain responded that the evaluation process—in which record accessions were checked once by a multi-agency team including DOE—was designed to correct this issue by stopping the "endless passing of the buck;' McIlwain closed by restating his invitation to "check out" and comment on the NDC blog, and to come to the public forums and offer comments.
John Powers (ISOO) continued McIlwain's comments, stating that HO and the committee should weigh in on the priority lists (for declassification review) that are made publicly available by the NDC and NARA for comment. He also congratulated John Collinge on his "second retirement," commenting that HO's loss was the NDC's gain. He also thanked Peterson for her helpful participation in a recent blog discussion regarding transforming the classification system.
Powers noted that the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) has continued its work on drafting proposals for transforming the classification system. However, there will be some delay in finalizing recommendations until new Board members are appointed, with several vacancies already existing and additional members departing soon.
Powers noted the appointment of John Fitzpatrick as the new ISOO director, and stated that he would be open to talking to the committee and HO, both about the problems surrounding specific volumes and about more general kinds of declassification challenges that FRUS faces.
Peterson asked how the backlog of pre-1982 material is affecting the problem of maintaining the 30 year line for declassifying materials. David Langbart replied that NARA has to review electronic records for privacy concerns, and that the P and N reels are printed out and reviewed, as are the TS paper files. Don McIlwain said that NARA attempts to prioritize documents based on historical importance. Langbart noted that the 1976 P-reels have been fully processed, but that one of the challenges of this era is that there was not a single, integrated central file of DOS documents.
McMahan inquired into the consistency of the declassification reviews accorded to documents in FRUS volumes compared to other, similar documents held at NARA. Langbart responded that reviews are done by the agencies and not by NARA, but agreed that the reviews of FRUS volumes are not always consistent with other reviews. McIlwain added that it was up to agencies to coordinate reviews and ensure consistency between paper and electronic documents, or between the same documents held in the files of several institutions, such as different agencies and presidential libraries; consistency in such cases was particularly challenging. Moreover, McIlwain continued, there is a human, subjective element in reviewing, but he reiterated Langbart's point that NARA merely implements decisions made by agencies. McMahon asserted his belief that there was a bias among declassification reviewers in favor of restriction and against release; because there was a lower bar for declassifying FRUS documents, he noted, FRUS played an important role in driving the declassification engine.
Langbart disagreed that the bar was lower when agencies made FRUS declassification decisions. Instead, he suggested that if one imagines declassification as a pole vault, the bar remained at the same height, but FRUS possessed a springier pole. Herschler interjected that the pole vault was occurring in slow motion due to the challenges of the declassification process. Because FRUS has high visibility, Langbart continued, FRUS documents receive a different, more intense review, and the FRUS appeals process is more effective than that accorded most documents. Langbart further commented that FRUS documents are more likely to be redacted than other documents, which are denied in full if they are not released in full. McIlwain supported this view, stating that FRUS documents receive line-by-line scrutiny rather than the more normal up or down declassification review. Langbart said that Personally Identifiable Information (PII)—most often Social Security Numbers—is the biggest release issue that is not national-security related in DOS records and that this problem had been getting worse over time. Langbart also remarked that NARA would be responding to DOS this month on the issue of transfer of central file records.
Sibley asked about the language of the Reagan Library access agreement, which stated that the advisory committee can be denied access to the records. Herschler replied that this was boilerplate language and had not been invoked in the past.
The CIA and the Foreign Relations Series
Herschler recognized representatives from the CIA and thanked him them for their efforts to accelerate the declassification of FRUS volumes. Face-to-face meetings continue to resolve declassification issues, in particular when HO wants to appeal review decisions. Herschler emphasized the preparation for these meetings as well as the presence of working-level decision-makers at the meetings as keys to their success. These meetings will continue. HO and CIA verified one FRUS volume in August 2011 and expect to verify at least one more before the end of the calendar year. HO submitted one new FRUS volume to CIA in August 2011 and will submit one more in September. CIA representatives agreed with this assessment.
Immerman asked about the Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972 volume; Weetman and Kirby from IPS and Powers from ISOO explained the issues under consideration; general discussion with the committee occurred for the next 15 minutes.
The committee then asked about the Iran and Congo Retrospective volumes and a general discussion occurred.
Sibley asked about the status of the National Security Policy 73-76 volume. Tudda and Herschler made general comments about the volume.
A discussion then ensued about when the declassification review of a volume is considered complete.