December 2019

Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation December 9–10, 2019


Committee Members

  • Richard Immerman, Chairman
  • Laura Belmonte
  • Mary Dudziak
  • David Engerman
  • William Inboden
  • Adriane Lentz-Smith
  • Trudy Peterson

Office of the Historian

  • Kristin Ahlberg
  • Carl Ashley
  • Margaret Ball
  • Forrest Barnum
  • Sara 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
  • William McAllister
  • Michael McCoyer
  • Christopher Morrison
  • Mircea Munteanu
  • 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

Bureau of Administration

  • Jeff Charlston
  • Corynne Gerow
  • Marvin Russell
  • Eric Stein

National Archives and Records Administration

  • Cathleen Brennan, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch
  • Sarah Farinholt, Textual Records Division/Accessioning Section
  • William Fischer, Director, National Declassification Center
  • Onaona Guay, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch
  • Philip Heslip, Textual Records Division/Textual Processing Branch
  • David Langbart, Textual Records Division
  • Bevin Maloney, Electronic Records Division/Processing Branch
  • Don McIlwain, National Declassification Center
  • Cary McStay, National Declassification Center
  • Amy Reytar, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch


  • Seth Denbo
  • Nate Jones

Open Session, December 9

Approval of the Record

Richard Immerman called the meeting to order. The Committee approved the minutes from the previous Historical Advisory Committee Meeting and unanimously approved Immerman serving as Chair in 2020.

Remarks by the Director of the Foreign Service Institute

Immerman then introduced Ambassador Daniel Smith of Foreign Service Institute (FSI). After some introductory remarks, Smith thanked David Langbart of the National Archives (NARA) for providing Department officials, including Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, a tour of the NARA facilities in College Park, MD. Smith continued by highlighting the recent accomplishments at OH, including the selection of Kathy Rasmussen as General Editor, recent publications of FRUS volumes, the participation of OH historians in FSI’s “Heroes of Diplomacy” program, OH’s recent informal conversations with Ambassador John Huntsman and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the participation of OH historians in FSI’s “Master Class for Diplomacy.” William Inboden followed up with a question on the meeting with Powell. James Wilson responded that he, Elizabeth Charles, and Alex Wieland participated and that the meeting was extremely positive and substantive. Mary Dudziak asked how these sorts of meetings were structured and whether any of the interviews are archived. Adam Howard responded that the meetings do not have a formalized structure and are more along the lines of a brownbag discussion. Richard Immerman asked if OH historians ever present documents to the policymakers and ask for their opinions. Wilson responded that this happens occasionally, but usually cannot because individuals lack proper clearances. Immerman suggested that in the future OH may want to bring multiple individuals together at the same time in order to benefit from collective memory. David Langbart asked whether any record was produced from these interviews and whether we retain the documentation. Howard and Rasmussen agreed that record creation did not take place and that the talks were of a more informal nature.

Report by the Executive Secretary

Howard began his remarks by noting that there were many copies of FRUS volumes in the OH lobby for the taking. He then welcomed Rasmussen as General Editor. Reflecting on 2019, Howard noted that the transition from PA to FSI was extremely smooth due to continual support from Smith and Ambassador Julieta Noyes.

Report by the General Editor

Kathy Rasmussen, General Editor of the Office of the Historian, acknowledged the full cooperation of the office during the great changes of the past year. She noted that since the last HAC meeting one volume had been published, one volume had been verified, one volume had been referred, and one had entered the declassification process. The published volume, Documents on the Middle East Region, 1973–1976, is notable for two reasons: It is an electronic only volume; and it is the final complete Nixon-Ford volume to be published.

The discussion turned to the recently finished digitization of the microfiche supplement to three FRUS volumes from the Kennedy administration, Arms Control; Foreign Economic Policy; and National Security Policy. This new digital version of the microfiche supplement, totaling 482 documents, is keyword and date searchable online, and available for download in e-book form. Mandy Chalou, Chief of the Editing and Publishing Division noted that OH planned to release one additional microfiche supplement every year. Chalou credited Joe Wicentowski with solving the technical problems that enable this version of the supplement to display both the original document and the typeset image of the document. Next to be digitized will be the supplement for American Republics; Cuba 1961–1962; Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, which is one of the most requested supplements for full digitization. Rasmussen explained that the 13 digital supplements were originally created from 1993–1998 to accommodate documents that did not “fit” into their parallel print volumes from the 1950s and 1960s. The 1990s FRUS management team had the idea of releasing as many documents as possible, but increased declassification burdens and incomplete document annotation eventually halted the project. At that time microfiche was also seen as the technology of the future. The Internet almost immediately surpassed microfiche technology, however, and researchers found it increasingly difficult to find microfiche readers and thus access the 13 completed supplements.

Nate Jones of the National Security Archive asked about OH’s strategy for breaking declassification logjams. Howard replied that OH is focused on resolving this issue and that several different routes to help accomplish this goal are currently in play. Chris Tudda noted that OH received a response from the Department of Defense (DoD) that morning—DoD released 43 documents in full. Mary Dudziak asserted that there is no substitute for an adequate budget. Agencies need sufficient resources to perform the critical work of declassification and this was the only way to significantly break the logjam. Immerman stated that meetings with NARA leadership revealed their own lack of resources for declassification, and that problem is shared with other agencies, but there are also structural problems involved. Working with the DoD will be a long-term focus of OH.

Immerman concluded the session by thanking the OH leadership on behalf of the HAC. He commended the work of Deputy Director Renée Goings in keeping the HAC informed of the many changes in OH over the past year. Finally, he offered the Committee’s continued assistance with declassification and other issues.

Closed Session, December 9

Status of Declassification of Department of State Records

Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS)

Eric Stein began his remarks by noting that he would be representing IPS during the first HAC meetings of 2020. Stein asked if the report prepared for the HAC had been useful. Richard Immerman replied that the report had been useful and Immerman confirmed that it had been. Stein followed up by noting that future reports from IPS could be produced with feedback from the HAC about what would be most useful to them.

Stein reported he had had a productive meeting with Bill Fischer of the NDC concerning the 1980–1981 N- and P- reels. He reported that efforts were being made to digitize the N- and P- reels from 1982 to the present. The current mandate was to have everything digitized by 2022. Once digitized, noted Stein, the paper copies would be destroyed.

Mary Dudziak asked if there would be a review process to ensure the digital copies were of high quality prior to the paper originals being destroyed. Immerman then asked if it were certain that the paper originals would be destroyed as it was quite likely that some of the documents would be of sufficient historical value to necessitate their preservation in the original format. Stein indicated the complexity of the question would necessitate a series of answers which he would furnish at the next HAC meeting.

Dudziak observed that there were significant implications inherent in the process of determining historical value and asked that Stein include this as one of the themes of his forthcoming presentation along with the question of quality control and review in addition to the ongoing N- and P- reel issue.

Stein stated that IPS was making efforts to preserve digital native records. Updates would be forthcoming, he suggested, on the technology that was being developed to handle these processes. He wished to draft a report for the HAC before the end of the year concerning the “bucketing” of records and how their status was being determined.

Immerman stated that the HAC had been waiting for a briefing on this matter for some nine months. Immerman noted it was difficult for the HAC to determine areas of concern when they had not been briefed on matters under their purview. Stein offered to brief, or arrange a briefing from Kootz, on the matter prior to the next HAC meeting. Immerman said the issue was sufficiently important that the whole committee should be apprised of it in the setting of an official session. Stein promised that IPS would brief the committee at the next meeting.

Immerman asked if it would be possible for researchers to find documents in as straightforward a manner as is currently done. Immerman said that historians are often equated with luddites, and that he and the committee were in favor of new methods, but that there were concerns about “bucketing” and other processes which were sincere. Dudziak suggested that IPS needed to consider how the process would affect end users, because the loss of context such as document adjacency, folder titles, boxes, and other archival information would be keenly felt by future researchers.

Stein noted that search terms and metadata were associated with the “buckets.” Dudziak suggested that the HAC and IPS have a “brainstorming” session during or around a future meeting at which solutions could be found to mutual problems. Stein noted a strong desire within IPS to collaborate more with the HAC. Dudziak further stated that such collaboration should occur prior to practices being finalized by IPS so that the ideas and feedback could have a meaningful outcome on what was implemented. Immerman remarked that the first step would be the forthcoming paper and the briefing

David Engerman observed that treating “the document” as the sole unit of historical analysis was problematic; the potential degradation or elimination of contextual information during the digitization process could leave documents bereft of much use or meaning to researchers. Stein noted that AI capabilities were being developed to assist with processing documents and their associated data.

Engerman stated that AI efforts could be valuable but that replacing contextual information with AIgenerated information could be problematic. He argued that digitization would engender decontextualization and that efforts should be made to prevent this. Dudziak observed that the structure of an archive and the manner in which items were kept within it is itself a concept of interest to historians.

Following up on Engerman’s point, David Langbart interjected, pointing to the creation of the Department’s Central Foreign Policy file as an example of how this process can have problematic results, noting that items in that series are an “amorphous mass” that can be difficult for researchers to find items within. Rather than being organized in files, the records are arranged randomly and require use of indexes and other tools to identify documents of interest. Immerman reiterated that the HAC and historians more generally are not opposed to technology and new approaches being taken to archival issues, but that benefits in both directions would derive from more intensive discussions between IPS and the stakeholders represented by the HAC.

Dudziak once again suggested a “brainstorming” session would be helpful. Immerman followed up in noting that since IPS was considered “cutting edge” in terms of the work they do, the decisions they make would likely be followed by other offices throughout the government.

Adriane Lentz-Smith asserted that it was very hard to predict how researchers and historians would use records fifty or more years from now; she argued that the records should be processed and organized in the most open-ended possible manner. Records that to contemporary eyes appear banal or merely personal might be of tremendous interest to future historians and the public. She stated that she had no specific solutions in mind to the problem of needing to process and dispose of a number of records versus the desire to preserve as many documents as possible, but that it was an issue which merited attention from IPS and the HAC. Immerman noted that historians would love IPS to keep absolutely every record in pristine form, but that it was unfortunately simply not possible.

Peterson noted that resources would have to be devoted to training the AI to process information and asked what information would be saved from digital-native records. Stein noted that recent innovations like shared drives and messaging apps made saving information in appropriate context more complex. He noted that some 1.4 billion emails had recently been captured, and that the sheer volume of email meant the number was increasing constantly; this would be a significant processing challenge in the near future.

Langbart noted that the question of what to preserve and how is the archetypical archival question. He recalled that he had been tasked with determining what was temporary or permanent many times, and while he had used his best judgement, another archivist might have made a different decision; subjectivity and human error are inescapable. He suggested that recent Department practices had exacerbated the problem, while the old retirement schedules were functional and subject-based, newer ones were not. Peterson asked if it would be possible to search records by to/from information, to which Engerman suggested that it would be more useful to know what was in the files of specific offices and officeholders. Stein indicated that the forthcoming briefing would address some of the issues raised by the HAC. He asserted that IPS was eager to work with the HAC on these and other items of mutual concern.

Immerman thanked Stein for his presentation and extolled his willingness to work to find solutions to specific issues. Immerman once more reiterated that historians are not technophobes and stated it was important to develop new tools going forward. Stein noted that while IPS takes great pride in their work it is best to be honest about the current and upcoming challenges facing the office so that they might be dealt with forthrightly. Stein concluded by promising to send the paper before the end of the year and asked for feedback on it by the next HAC meeting. He noted the paper would address some issues raised at the meeting including keeping historical context while digitizing and the “bucketing” concern with how items were processed.

National Declassification Center (NDC)

Following a brief intermission, William Fischer, Director of the NDC, began by introducing Cary McStay, Chief of the Special Media and e-Records Division and lead archivist on the N- and P-reel records at the NDC.

Regarding progress on the N- and P-reel records, Fischer reported he had met with members of the Department to outline a plan to review the 1980 N- and P-reels, and that McStay was leading the evaluation of those materials to remove misfiled documents from the collection to prepare them for upload to the NDC’s system. NDC members worked with Eric Stein and Melvin Russell in IPS, to create a terms list to aid identification of misfiled information. As McStay’s team reviewed 120,000 files in the 1980 N- and P-reels, removed misfiled documents, and uploaded the material to the NDC system, Russell would perform the Department review.

With this review module and process in place, Fischer believed the interagency review could proceed in 2020. Once Russell completed his review, the NDC would bring in three other agencies to perform their own declassification evaluation. This process would then be emulated for classified records from Presidential Libraries as they arrived in Washington. Since every Presidential Library was scheduled to start delivering their material by the beginning of 2020, he expected the process to begin at that time.

Immerman thanked Fischer for his efforts, noting that despite an earlier proposal not to complete such a review he was glad to see progress. Immerman asked when the records might be available for OH compilers and researchers, to which Fischer replied that Jay Bosenko had stressed the importance of including the OH compilers and researchers in the process and facilitating access to the records. To that end, Bosenko had suggested a memorandum of agreement for research access and space OH historians and had broken the logjam that had delayed the delivery of George H.W. Bush records to Office historians.

Adam Howard added his appreciation and noted that Bill Donovan had also assisted in that process.

Fischer then deferred to Don McIlwain for his report. On the topic of the memorandum, McIlwain noted that he had met with Rasmussen and Ahlberg of OH to negotiate the memorandum of understanding that Fischer would now send up to Bosenko for approval. McIlwain stated his office was now equipped to work on classified presidential records, even though he expected there would be hitches that might necessitate calls to archivists at the Presidential Libraries regarding the materials.

McIlwain further explained that John Laster of the Office of Presidential Libraries was drafting a memorandum of understanding between those libraries and the NDC to coordinate classified records requests and establish a process whereby those requests would be fulfilled. He noted similar agreements were underway with the Department and NARA, and that the NDC was working internally to establish a process for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. That process, particularly work on classified information requested by such inquiries, would continue.

McIlwain reported that all 2018 documents had been processed with a 97% release rate, including 117,000 pages sent to the Department. He acknowledged that despite the clear guidance supplied by the Department regarding release criteria, their reviewers still received referrals they should not have to evaluate. Immerman wondered if those referrals occurred because some agencies were more conservative in their declassification practices. McIlwain confirmed that and added that sometimes agencies were overcautious and referred too much material to other agencies. He noted that while that was improving, there was still a way to go.

Turning to Freedom of Information Act reviews, he reported that the FOIA division had reduced the previous year’s backlog by 34%. He hoped to further reduce the outstanding mandatory reviews by 10% in the near future.

Dudziak, complimenting the success, asked how the team achieved it. McIlwain described the success in terms of process improvements, especially automation of referral and item retrieval duties. Archivists now sent material to other agencies for consultation by scanning the documents, selecting the relevant individual items, and creating a CD that could be sent to one or multiple agencies as necessary. On the research side, the Indexing on Demand project had improved responses to researcher requests, since individuals could now request the separation of classified and unclassified material. That allowed researchers to view 70% of the file without submitting a FOIA request for the entire sensitive collection. This particularly aided researchers interested in unprocessed material or for which there were insufficient or non-existent finding aids. In addition, for instances where guidance proved unclear, work with Russell now provided an avenue for initial sensitivity triage, at least within the Department. He wished other agencies would create a similar position. Finally, he emphasized the importance of the good people on the team, whose synergy made the things run smoothly. Fischer underscored that fact, citing critical importance of the team’s active and engaged interaction with requestors and other agencies.

Noting that the NDC had used the Army Investigative Review Repository materials as its test case in developing its review process, Peterson asked why they started with those materials. McIlwain explained that because they were digitized prior to receipt by NARA, the AIRR files provided a readily accessible source that also aligned with topics of research interest. The AIRR files covered the period immediately following World War II, which allowed a beta test of born-digital data while also covering issues that touched on issues relevant to many researchers, an observation Dudziak confirmed.

Immerman thanked both Fischer and McIlwain for what he termed the “most positive brief” by the NDC in the last six years.

Research Services

Langbart noted that three issues came up at the September meeting for which he had promised responses. He included those responses in the “read ahead” report he had submitted but wanted to add a few comments.

First, as of September, the geographical breakdown of Research Services staff finds 75.5% in Washington, 16.9% in field locations not including St. Louis, and 7.5% in St. Louis. Recent staff losses have changed those percentage bit. Second, a major effort to create finding aids for USIA records is in the offing. Finally, there has been no final decision on the “one pull at a time policy” but it has undergone a slight modification to provide more flexibility. He also noted that record pulls are being done on a continuous basis instead of at fixed pull times, which means researchers working through boxes quickly can see more records during their visits.

Langbart highlighted some of the statistical information on Research Services activities that he had provided in his read ahead report, including accessions, processing, reference requests, finding aid preparation, and digitization work. Of special note, no foreign policy records had been processed so far in FY 2020, but some are in the work plan for later in the year.

Peterson asked why Record Group (RG) 75 (Bureau of Indian Affairs records) had been chosen for the test of the “next generation finding aid.” Langbart deferred to Cate Brennan who explained that RG 75 records are held in a wide variety of locations and they provided a robust test for the project. Immerman noted that he had asked the SHAFR document committee to test various NARA electronic catalogs. They had found problems with all of them and had reported the findings to NARA.

David Engerman asked about the digitization of “blue book” records (by which he apparently meant the catalog of Department microfilm records that are accessed by first consulting a bound finding aid in the microfilm reading room). Langbart responded that some digitization was underway and eventually all microfilm publications would be converted to digital format. He stated that most of the film quality was good, but some text of early documents is lost on the film because of how the original paper documents were bound or because of ink bleed. This concluded the session.