Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation December 10–11, 2018
- Richard Immerman, Chairman
- Laura Belmonte
- Mary Dudziak
- David Engerman
- Susan Perdue
- Trudy Peterson
- Daryl Press
Office of the Historian
- Kristin Ahlberg
- Carl Ashley
- Margaret Ball
- Forrest Barnum
- Sarah Berndt
- Josh Botts
- Myra Burton
- Tiffany Cabrera
- Mandy Chalou
- Elizabeth Charles
- Thomas Faith
- David Geyer
- Renée Goings
- Charles Hawley
- Kerry Hite
- Adam Howard
- Aiyaz Husain
- Virginia Kinniburgh
- William McAllister
- Michael McCoyer
- Heather McDaniel
- Christopher Morrison
- David Nickles
- Paul Pitman
- Alexander Poster
- Kathleen Rasmussen
- Matthew Regan
- Amanda Ross
- Seth Rotramel
- Daniel Rubin
- Nathaniel Smith
- Melissa Jane Taylor
- Chris Tudda
- Dean Weatherhead
- Joseph Wicentowski
- Alexander Wieland
- James Wilson
- Louise Woodroofe
- David Zierler
Bureau of Administration
- Jeff Charlston
- Brandi Garrett
- Tim Kootz
- Keri Lewis
- Marvin Russell
- Eric Stein
National Archives and Records Administration
- Marci Bayer, Textual Records Division/Accessioning Branch
- Cathleen Brennan, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch
- Timothy Enas, Director, Textual Records Division
- Philip Heslip, Textual Records Division/Textual Processing Branch
- David Langbart, Textual Records Division
- John Laster, Office of Presidential Libraries
- Don McIlwain, National Declassification Center
- Amy Reytar, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch
- Bill Burr
- Seth Denbo
- Lee White
Open Session, December 10
Approval of the Record
Richard Immerman called the meeting to order at 11:00 a.m. and welcomed new Committee members David Engerman and Daryl Press. Immerman recommended approval of the previous minutes. Mary Dudziak seconded approving the minutes, as amended. The motion carried unanimously. Turning to the election of a new Committee chair, Trudy Peterson nominated Immerman. A unanimous vote approved his election.
Immerman introduced Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (PDAS), Susan Stevenson to provide the report on issues relevant to the Office and the Foreign Relations series (FRUS). Stevenson began by thanking Immerman and congratulating him on his reelection as Committee chair. She thanked the returning Committee members, as well as attendees from other Bureaus and federal agencies, and guests from the general public. Stevenson welcomed Engerman and Press, and noted Adriane Lentz-Smith’s absence due to weather-related flight cancelations.
Stevenson thanked the Deputy Historian, Renée Goings, and the General Editor, Adam Howard, for their extended service as acting Office Co-Directors in the absence of an Office Director. She explained the hiring freeze and additional requirements of a Senior Executive Service (SES) position had delayed the search for a new Historian, but that hiring officials recently completed interviews with 4 finalists and expected to announce their selection before the end of the calendar year.
Turning to FRUS, Stevenson reported the Office had published four volumes thus far, and expected to complete publication of two additional volumes before year’s end. In addition, she complimented Joe Wicentowski and his team for completing the digitization of previously published volumes dating back to the beginning of the series. Thanks to their efforts, all older volumes are now available and fully searchable on the Office website. The team now turned their attention to digitizing 13 microfiche supplements.
Stevenson commended the Office staff for teaching the Diplomatic History module for every Foreign Service Institute A–100 course this year, a total of about 400 students. Office historians also taught 330 students in 14 different area studies courses. In addition to teaching, historians from the Office provided historical research on a variety of projects and issues including the Middle East Peace Process, countering extremism in Uganda, and—in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—a project on ethical leadership. Stevenson concluded by highlighting the Office’s value to the Department and the Secretary.
Howard thanked Stevenson on behalf of the Office, and Goings read the following statement into the record: “The Office of the Historian would like to recognize Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Susan Stevenson for her leadership and support. The Office is deeply grateful for the genuine interest and intellectual engagement Susan has shown in our work, for her dedication to documenting the history of U.S. foreign affairs, and for recognizing that history can be used as an effective tool in current foreign policy decision making.”
After a round of applause, Howard noted that 3 FRUS volumes had been released since the previous meeting and seconded Stevenson’s praise of the FRUS digitization project before turning the floor over to the Digital History Advisor, Joe Wicentowski.
Report by the Digital History Advisor
Wicentowski noted that all 512 back catalogue FRUS volumes were now available on history.state.gov, and each is fully searchable, downloadable in a number of formats, and available as TEI and XML for advanced researchers. The microfiche supplements, Wicentowski observed, would particularly benefit from being digitized thanks to format inaccessibility issues. He reported that the first microfiche volume was a fair ways through the digitization process. Wicentowski thanked digital editor Virginia Kinniburgh for her thorough and accurate work on the series. He noted that additional volumes scheduled for publication this year and microfiche supplements would bring the total number available close to 550 in the near future.
Wicentowski then demonstrated some of the data that could be drawn from the digital volumes, noting that the average document had 2.5 footnotes and that the oldest document to appear in a FRUS volume was a charter issued by King James I in the 1620s, reprinted in a 19th century volume on the Treaty of Washington. The complete digitization of the series, argued Wicentowski, opened up a number of great possibilities for data analysis; theses using this dataset were already being created.
Report on Compilation
Kathy Rasmussen then took the floor to discuss the FRUS compilation process. She described compilation as normally taking around two years: one for research and one for annotation. The research process normally begins with a perusal of memoir and secondary literature on the subject, progressing to an examination of the finding aids for relevant repositories, and resulting in the creation of a research plan. Although the majority of research takes place at NARA facilities (principally presidential libraries), the breadth of the FRUS mandate empowers compilers to research in the holdings of other agencies.
Rasmussen commented that the ‘US’ in FRUS directs the focus of the series, which documents top-down policy decisions within the U.S. Government. Although it can vary by the subject of a particular volume, high-level documents are prioritized for inclusion. After researching, the complier will then chronologically organize the documents and divide them into topic or thematic compilations within the volume as appropriate. The preface of every FRUS volume outlines the selection criteria.
She stated that most recent FRUS volumes had a limit of 1400 manuscript pages which averages to 300–350 documents, although there is a fair amount of variation depending upon the volume. Creating a narrative with documents—a necessity in compiling FRUS—can be challenging, and typically a mix of documents is required for a volume to come together. Although there can be overlap between volumes, compilers coordinate to avoid printing the same document twice when possible.
Rasmussen underscored that annotation provides “value-added” to consumers of the volumes. Compilers add information that allows the reader to grasp the “who, what, when, and why” of the document quickly and easily, faithfully renders notations and other features of the original document, and provides references to other FRUS volumes and external sources to contextualize and explain the document. Compilers also utilize editorial notes to summarize when appropriate.
The draft volume then undergoes two reviews, the first by the compiler’s supervisor, who ensures that the volume both meets the standards and style of the series and holds together in terms of substance, and a second, performed by the General Editor or the Assistant to the General Editor, which focuses on the substance of the volume and its relationship to other volumes in the sub-series. After the compiler revises the volume in response to these reviews, the volume goes onto the declassification and editing stages of the process.
Rasmussen concluded by saying that the FRUS series is a symbol and product of the U.S. Government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.
Immerman asked if private papers and diaries were utilized in compiling the volumes. Rasmussen, referencing some cases from her own research, suggested this usually depended on the volume; for some, additional sources were sought once the obvious government repositories failed to yield important documents.
Stevenson asked why and how new editions of existing FRUS volumes were created and released. Rasmussen and Howard noted that the Arab-Israeli Dispute, August 1978–December 1980, and Iran, 1951–1954, volumes had recently seen 2nd editions released in the past year, however this was rather unusual. Due to the resource cost involved, new editions were declassified and released only when new documentation of great importance to volume was discovered.
Immerman suggested that the purpose of FRUS was not to be complete in and of itself but to be a useful aid to historians, who were then obligated to do their own research.
Engerman asked if documents from foreign archives were ever included in FRUS. Rasmussen stated that this had been done when certain documents of foreign provenance had appeared in U.S. archives; however, as a general rule the Office does not possess the time, resources, or access to make searching for documents in foreign archives a useful endeavor. Additionally, the Office has a role and duty, given its privileged access to U.S. records, to find and get those documents declassified. Howard noted that the joint U.S./Soviet volume had included documents from U.S. and Russian archives, but that such joint projects require extensive resources. David Geyer noted that similar publications such as the Akten produced by the German government were often more limited than FRUS given their lack of statutory backing for access to a broad range of different agencies and archives.
Immerman thanked Rasmussen for her enlightening talk and opened the floor to public comment. A question pertaining to 1980 telegrams returned a reply from IPS staff indicating that there had been no change in the status of that question since the previous meeting. The open session was then adjourned.
Closed Session, December 10
Status of Declassification of Department of State Records
Immerman called the meeting into session and welcomed Eric Stein, Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services.
Stein provided an overview of the five essential responsibilities held by IPS; Records, Classification and Declassification, FOIA, Congressional and Court Publications, and the Bunche Library. Stein also announced John C. Sullivan as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary and introduced Brandi Garrett as a new Branch Chief. Stein noted that cooperation with the Office was stellar and thanked the staff for helping to uphold the warm relationship.
Stein reported that the ongoing electronic initiative had already collected over one million emails. Such a large amount of data indicates that IPS needs to create novel ways to manage the process of declassification. One potential approach under consideration is the use of artificial intelligence. Machine learning potentially could quicken the processing of the petabytes of data entering the system.
Stein announced that IPS was currently on schedule to meet the 2019 records mandate. He also noted a desire to improve the function of the FOIA website. One goal was to provide online access to mandatory declassification review forms. Stein requested suggestions for improving the FOIA website. He noted the presence of Keri Lewis and Marvin Russell of the IPS FRUS team and lauded their success in keeping current with the FRUS statutory mandate.
Stein closed his remarks by thanking the Historian’s Office for being a great partner and invited the members of the HAC to tour the Bunche Library.
Howard commented that IPS was the best performer of any office that receives FRUS declassification requests in terms of accuracy and timeliness of the review.
Immerman agreed with Howard’s comments and pointed out that the HAC’s annual report had flagged IPS for praise.
Dudziak inquired about the potential utility of artificial intelligence for the declassification work. Stein responded that a goal for 2019 is to figure out exactly how machine learning could be used responsibly to increase the speed of declassification reviews. No steps will be taken rashly. Perhaps by 2020 it would be possible for human reviewers receive assistance from artificial intelligence-based screening of materials.
Immerman requested an update regarding the status of P Reel availability, noting that Jeff Charlston had described an impasse on the issue during the last HAC meeting.
Stein replied that Brandi Garrett will be working with Charlston to create a planning strategy to get the P Reels available to the public at NARA. Stein promised future reporting on the issue.
Office of Presidential Libraries
John Laster introduced himself to the new members and explained how records management worked before and after the 1978 Presidential Records Act. Prior to it, records were the personal property of the President. All but Nixon deeded their papers to NARA. Traditionally, NARA would perform Mandatory Review, and systematically processed collections chronologically, creating a finding aid along the way. Archivists removed classified material and left withdrawal sheets for researchers to identify the classified documents.
There have been some significant changes to how we declassify records. The first was the Clinton Executive Order, which introduced the 25 year automatic declassification system. Second, with the passage of the Presidential Records Act, the Reagan Library was the first to begin the process of FOIA requests and Mandatory Declassification, creating a change in finding aids and was soon overwhelmed by FOIA requests. This has led to trade-offs; it is good for topical research, but bad for cross-disciplinary research. Finally, the ISOO interprets the rules for MDR and directed that MDR requests could be at the folder level rather than just individual documents.
Laster also provided a FOIA finding aid from the Clinton Library to demonstrate the changed finding aid.
The ensuing discussion addressed some of the drawbacks of the finding aid style. As David Langbart succinctly put it, the lack of individual folder titles and the reliance upon archivists prevent “serendipitous findings.”
Laster understood and emphasized that they would love more resources to address these issues and to deal with “FOIA Gorillas” who have overwhelmed the system, but the reality of the situation is that they have to prioritize.
Additionally, HAC members and Laster addressed the plan for centralization. Laster said that he was hearing 2–3 years for transferring all classified Presidential Records back to the National Declassification Center. Likely, the institutional knowledge will stay in the libraries. But, Peterson and Laster believed that after the transition period, archivists in Washington would also become experts, just as they did when the Nixon administration records were here.
Dudziak suggested that a legislative fix might be needed to deal with archivists’ ability to deal with the sheer volume of incoming records and that more public awareness would help.
The discussion returned to the subject of dealing with so many FOIA requests and the detriments of such finding aids.
National Declassification Center
Don McIlwain of the National Declassification Center began his presentation alerting the HAC members of the readouts he sent ahead of time. He then said he would offer an overview of the NDC from “30,000 feet” particularly for the benefit of the new HAC members in attendance.
The NDC, he noted, is located in NARA, and it facilitates declassification review and streamlines processes under its mandate from the Obama administration. Its goal is to play an integral role in the timely declassification of fully processed documents.
The NDC has no independent authority to declassify material; it must rely on its agency partners whose equities in documents determine their participation in the declassification process. McIlwain then provided an example: if there is a weekly report of a country’s activities sent to the Department by the embassy, clearly the Department has equity in that document. But, if anything from Justice is represented in that cable, then it also has equities in the cable as well and will have to play a role in the declassification process.
The NDC’s role is to play quarterback during this process. It is the go-between for all the back and forth from the agencies, which can be complicated when, the Department has signed off on releasing a particular cable but another agency has not. Before that document is ready to be sent off to other parts of NARA, the NDC must ensure that all represented agencies have satisfied (and are themselves satisfied) that the review process proceeded successfully.
McIlwain then explained that his specialty is in “boutique processes,” meaning those instances where a researcher is trying to get one or a very few documents processed based on a single withdrawal sheet. This is markedly different than large-scale processing of groups of records. He said that he tries to work with researchers to get them what they need, and that the more narrow the request they are working with, the more likely the search will yield useful documents.
McIlwain then raised a question about the NDC’s capacity going forward to maintain its review pace given the amount of records and the limitations of staffing. He noted that it will be vital to develop and maintain good relations with the subject matter experts at the presidential libraries because their input is invaluable to the efficiency of the processing program.
He then noted that the NDC is already processing for 2019 and that the indexing on demand program is going well. He explained that the NDC provides a link from its blog to show the status of the final segregation of documents, which determines what goes to the top of the queue. He noted a rate of declassification in the 79–82 percent range and that the FOIA backlog has decreased by a quarter—despite some recent staffing challenges. McIlwain also noted that he has closed three of ten of the oldest FOIA requests that remain active, to which John Laster interjected that he had found some more. McIlwain replied that he is hoping despite this to have all of the oldest cases closed.
He then expressed his appreciation for the ongoing excellent rapport NDC enjoys with the Department, and that, going forward, NDC should endeavor to have similar relations with other agencies. The effect, he asserted, will be tangible: a great majority of cases could be decided “in-house” (i.e., at NARA) with the input of an agency representative, such as Marvin Russell, who can make a decision on site, thereby reducing the need to go through the arduous process of physically referring documents out to agencies.
Richard Immerman asked about the status of the announcement for the new director of NDC. McIlwain replied that he had no specific information other than to note that a decision had been made. He then explained that the process for this SES (Senior Executive Service) hire was similar to that of the new Historian. He then invited the HAC for a field trip to the NDC to see in person how the operation runs. Immerman noted that this exercise was previously interesting and quite useful.
David Langbart of the Textual Records Division reported on the activities of Research Services, which is responsible for accessioning permanent records, processing and describing those records, and making them available to the public to the greatest extent possible. Research Services employs about 584 people, of which 419 work in at NARA I and II in the Washington area.
As noted in the read-ahead report, during FY 2018, NARA accessioned foreign affairs and intelligence materials from the Department of State (231 feet); Foreign Service Posts (83 feet); the Agency for International Development (83 feet); the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (92 feet); the Peace Corps (52 feet); the Central Intelligence Agency (12 feet); the Defense Intelligence Agency (218 feet); and the National Security Agency (895 feet). So far in FY 2019, NARA has accessioned additional materials from State (143 feet), AID (9 feet), Peace Corps (11 feet), and NSA (166 feet).
Langbart stated that NARA continues to prioritize processing of foreign affairs materials. In FY 2019, NARA plans to process materials from State (288 feet/51 entries); Foreign Service Posts (326 feet/36 entries); AID (378 feet/38 entries); U.S. Information Agency (61 feet/12 entries); and OPIC (511 feet/70 entries).
The Reference Branch at NARA II has been very busy. In FY 2018, it answered over 17,000 mail inquiries, an increase of 16 percent over the previous year. So far in FY 2019, NARA II has hosted over 7,500 researchers.
By February 2019, NARA plans to improve the online catalog by a) making it possible to limit searches by record groups and collections and b) making new documents linked to the catalog searchable by OCRing all jpegs and pdfs. Further improvements to the NARA catalog are in the works.
Referring to the discussion of the agreement between the Department and NARA regarding the creation of a public-use version of the P-Reel segment of the Central Foreign Policy File, Langbart reported that NARA had located a copy of the Transfer Plan for 1973–76 tranche of the Central Foreign Policy File, according to which the Department agreed to produce a paper copy of the P Reel documents. Langbart stated that NARA had prepared the transfer plan with the full cooperation and input from State and that both agencies had agreed to the plan, which was meant to be a template for subsequent tranches of the Central Foreign Policy File. McIlwain commented that representatives of both agencies have continued discussions meant to resolve issues related to the retirement of the Central Foreign Policy File.
Langbart noted that in order to fill gaps in the NARA website that displays electronic telegrams from the Central Foreign Policy File, NARA had created a new website that will give access to a) telegrams missing electronic text and b) telegrams that have been newly declassified (in whole or in part). Langbart demonstrated the website and noted that some improvements are to come.
Langbart reported that Tim Enas has been appointed as director of the Technical Records Division and that Marci Bayer is the new Accessioning Branch archivist.
In response to a question, Langbart noted that NARA had prominently displayed precise directions for citing the Department of State cables posted on the new NARA website for released telegrams.
Closed Session, December 11
Report by the CLinton Administration Working Group
The members of the Office Clinton Working Group—Pitman, Wieland, Zierler, Munteanu, and Botts—presented an overview of the process that led to the draft Clinton FRUS plan. Following questions from members of the Advisory Committee, they reiterated that the plan is a work in progress and that fellow historians will have an opportunity to weigh in at SHAFR 2019 in Arlington. Daryl Press suggested that the Office might consider a similar presentation at a forthcoming meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA)