February 2012

Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation February 27, 2012


Committee Members

  • Richard Immerman, Chairman
  • Laura Belmonte
  • Trudy Peterson
  • Katherine Sibley
  • Thomas Zeiler

Office of the Historian

  • Edward Brynn, Acting Historian
  • Kristin Ahlberg
  • Carl Ashley
  • Forrest Barnum
  • Sara Berndt
  • Josh Botts
  • Myra Burton
  • Tiffany Cabrera
  • Mandy Chalou
  • Erin Cozens
  • Evan Dawley
  • Evan Duncan
  • David Geyer
  • Renée Goings
  • David Herschler
  • Kerry Hite
  • Adam Howard
  • Laura Kolar
  • Lindsay Krasnoff
  • Aaron Marrs
  • Bill McAllister
  • Michael McCoyer
  • Chris Morrison
  • Mircea Munteanu
  • Paul Pitman
  • Alexander Poster
  • Stephen Randolph
  • Kathleen Rasmussen
  • Seth Rotramel
  • Avi Rubin
  • Daniel Rubin
  • Nathaniel Smith
  • Melissa Jane Taylor
  • Chris Tudda
  • Dean Weatherhead
  • Joe Wicentowski
  • Alex Wieland
  • Louise Woodroofe
  • David Zierler

Bureau of Administration

  • David Adamson
  • Harmon Kirby
  • Marvin Russell
  • Susan Weetman

National Archives and Records Administration

  • David Langbart, Textual Archives Services Division
  • Don McIlwain, National Declassification Center
  • John Powers, Information Security Oversight Office

Open Session, February 27

Approval of the Record of the December 2011 Meeting

Richard Immerman called the meeting to order at 11:05 a.m. The committee approved the record of the December meeting.

Report by the Executive Secretary

Edward Brynn welcomed everyone in attendance, noting that this would be his last appearance before the committee. He announced that the Department's panel in charge of selecting his replacement had recommended appointing Stephen Randolph as the Historian, effective April 1, 2012 and that Assistant Secretary Mike Hammer had approved the panel's recommendation.

Brynn reflected on his "extended temporary tenure" as Acting Historian, which began in mid-August 2009 and would come to an end on March 31, 2012. He began by thanking Hammer and the Bureau of Public Affairs, Deputy Historian David Herschler, and current and former members of the office management and staff. He recalled the circumstances of the start of his tenure and a significant personal challenge. After being approached by Harold Geisel, he began serving as Special Advisor to Ambassador and Acting Historian John Campbell on June 1, 2009.

Brynn reviewed the Office of the Historian's (HO) accomplishments during his tenure: Foreign Relations (FRUS) production was back on track; HO would soon have new quarters and planning was well underway for the move; bilateral and multilateral relations with organizations in the Beltway and beyond were much improved; former contractors had joined the office as full time employees; all 49 FTE positions were filled (more than half of which came on during Brynn's time); the divisions of Policy Studies and Special Projects had raised the Office's profile in the Department; HO's relationship with the Bureau of Public Affairs was much improved (thanks to Assistant Secretary Hammer and his predecessor, PJ Crowley); HO had become a "major player on the larger academic scene" as demonstrated by the recent FRUS sesquicentennial conference at Williams College; HO's outreach activities (through work with secondary schools, FSI, oral history, and sesquicentennial events and research) were extremely effective; and HO had made great strides in digitizing the FRUS series.

Nonetheless, Brynn added, "we're not there yet" and outlined areas where the office was continuing to focus its efforts. Randolph has comprehensive plans for these areas. Brynn had focused his efforts on morale building, but there would be more organizational changes to come, he said. The budget was a continuing challenge, but he praised Herschler for his management of the financial situation thus far. He also said that "print versus digital" publishing was a continuing debate for the Foreign Relations series. He noted that progress had been made on declassification and praised the recent High Level Panel training exercise held for HO staff.

In closing, Brynn thanked all and bid the committee farewell.

Status Reports by the Deputy Historian and General Editor

Immerman thanked Brynn for his tireless service and invited Herschler and Randolph to present their reports.

Herschler reported some progress despite the holiday season: Energy Crisis 1969-1974 was published, bringing the total number of volumes published in 2011 to 7, a level he hoped would remain consistent in the coming years; and two more volumes were declassified, bringing the total number of volumes declassified in 2011 to 10, a level he hoped would be achieved in 2012, bringing the declassification backlog down to its "lowest point in decades." He thanked the Declassification and Publishing division, as well as Susan Weetman, Harman Kirby, and the other organizations represented in the room. He also noted several outreach activities, including presentations by staff at the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting and activities marking the sesquicentennial of the FRUS series: Aaron Marrs presented a talk about the sesquicentennial at the Lincoln Cottage; Marrs and Peter Cozzens presented on the sesquicentennial at the Wilson Center; HO presented its exhibit booth at the AHA; Marrs presented on the early career forum at AHA; Aaron Marrs presented at the AHA session on turning one's dissertation into a book; and HO co-organized with HAC member James McAllister, and participated in the Williams College conference on National Security Policy 1969-1972 as part of the FRUS sesquicentennial program.

Randolph welcomed three new staff members: Seth Rotramel, Laura Kolar, and Forrest Barnum. He noted that the "box training" exercise for new staff would commence the following week. He reported that FRUS tracking and management tools were helping with the allocation of resources and with spurring collaboration across divisions. He reported that major revisions to the FRUS Style Guide were nearly complete and thanked Marrs and the Style Guide working group. Speaking about the progress of the Reagan subseries, Randolph stated, "The beachhead on Reagan is now a full-fledged invasion." Finally, he reported on a new initiative, transition reviews, wherein everyone involved in a volume (from research through declassification) meets to coordinate; two such reviews had been completed, and five were underway.

During the open discussion, the committee inquired about the status of retrospective volumes and about the selection of the next general editor, which would commence after Randolph replaced Brynn.

Status of Declassification of Department of State Records

Susan Weetman introduced the new Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS), Sheryl Walter.

Weetman then provided the status of electronic and paper file review. She distributed to the committee a chart displaying the current status of review and transfer of records to NARA.

IPS has completed review of State Archiving System (SAS) classified and Limited Official Use electronic cables through 1986, as well as the P-reel indices of all classifications through 1987. With the exception of the electronic P-reel indices and the TS paper files, IPS transferred all the remaining elements of the 1977 Central File (including D-reel microfilm, P-reel microfilm, P-reel printouts, N-reel microfilm, N-reel printouts, and the bulky files) to the National Archives (NARA) in February. In March, IPS expects to transfer the 1977 P-reel indices and all of the remaining elements of the 1978 Central File, except the TS paper files. In March, IPS also expects to transfer all the elements of the 1979 Central File, again with the exception of the TS paper files. Since the TS paper files were originally reviewed in 2002, IPS has decided to re-review them prior to transfer, and expects to have the TS paper files ready for transfer in April. The goal is by April to have transferred to NARA all elements of the Central File through 1979. IPS is currently consulting with NARA about a transfer plan for 1980 and going forward.

Turning to paper review, Weetman reported that IPS has completed the review of the Department’s paper records through 1985, and is currently reviewing the 1986-1990 record block. So far this calendar year IPS has reviewed over 361,000 pages for a total of 2.3 million pages of the 1986-1990 record block. IPS has completed the review of the P and N-reel microfilm printouts through 1979, and is currently pursuing various options and obtaining cost estimates for printing out the 1980-81 microfilm.

Herschler asked about the IPS review of lot files, and Weetman responded that they are currently reviewing that record block for 1986-90. Immerman asked what was involved in transfer of the electronic files, as many files appeared to be ready to transfer within the next few weeks. Weetman responded that it was basically a matter of copying the files onto electronic media and delivering them to the NARA.

Closed Session, February 27

Issues Relating to the Declassification and Opening of Records at the National Archives

David Langbart began his report saying that he had sent the committee the requested report on the accessioning procedures for foreign affairs records. There are two types of records: electronic and paper. Records are handled in different ways based on their classification. The National Declassification Center (NDC) has to act before classified material can be processed. The NDC is presently working on the backlog, so it is not working on newly accessioned records. After NDC completes its reviews, records are archivally processed (including items such as finding aids). Files containing Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) can be processed immediately, but have to be reviewed before being released to the public. Electronic records arrive on CD and go through similar steps. Any timelines given about how quickly things are processed are best-case scenarios.

Langbart then answered questions that had been sent to him by the committee.

  • 1. Q: Has the process changed over the past 5-10 years, and if so, in what ways and should we be concerned?
  • A: The process of reviewing records has not changed appreciably in the last 5-10 years. Even though the executive order talks about risk-taking, agencies are still conducting page-by-page reviews for foreign affairs, intelligence and military records. Don McIlwain explained that the Kyl-Lott law relating to DOE equities (i.e. RD/FRD information) slows the entire process.

  • 2. Q: In terms of classification, are there differences between textual (i.e. hard copy) and electronic records?
  • A: There is no real difference since the content of the records is the same. The only difference is how the review and processing actually takes place.

  • 3. Q: What is the likelihood that the process for accessing electronic records will change as more of these documents hit the shelves?
  • A: Access will vary. Not all records will be available on-line through the Access to Archival Databases (AAD). NARA has to consider its own resources and researcher interest.

  • 4. Q: The chart provides no timetable. Perhaps that is because the timing is such a moving target, and subject to so many variables, that any estimate would be worthless. Is that the case, or can you give us some rough idea?
  • A: We are not able to provide an estimated timetable for the hardcopy records in the same manner as we have for the electronic records because the processes are so different and the volume of paper records form all agencies is so great. Much of the final processing is dependent upon the NDC's completion of its work and presently it is focusing on the backlog, not new accessions.

  • 5 and 6. Q: The report/chart does not describe how those documents that are not declassified are identified for the researcher. In the past withdrawal slips have been inserted. Is this still the case? Q: What about electronic records? What kind of withdrawal "slips" are inserted in them?
  • A: Any time a document is withdrawn, a notice is placed in the records. In the paper records, the notice goes into the file at the same place as the withdrawn document. There is an electronic equivalent (although the withdrawal notices exist as a parallel file; not integrated into the declassified file). Researchers will always know when something has been withdrawn.

Immerman indicated that he had learned that withdrawal notices are less detailed than they used to be and asked if that won't cause problems both for researchers interested in filing FOIA requests and for archivists refiling documents after they are declassified. McIlwain said that there are millions of pages of backlog, so that archivists cannot take the time to be as descriptive as researchers might like. The NDC has told processing archivists that they can add more information, but of course, they do not have time either. Withdrawn documents have a unique identification number, which is on the withdrawal notice, in the database, and on the document tab, which may make it easier to return the document to the file if it is subsequently declassified. Langbart said that generally it was easy to go from a document to a withdrawal slip; it is not always easy to go the other way. Immerman asked how much resources are available for integrating declassified documents. McIlwain noted that if the document is declassified as the result of a FOIA or Mandatory Review (MDR) request, it is refiled at the time.

McMahon said that while NARA may be releasing more material earlier, it is all less important. He said that that if he was advising students on research projects, he would tell them not to research administrations after Carter. Every president puts forth a new Executive Order on declassification, but none improve the process. Langbart responded that in the Central Foreign Policy File, the vast majority of the documents are being released, and what is getting denied is material that has always been denied. McMahon said that the committee should review material that is being withdrawn. Langbart reminded McMahon that the declassification review for FRUS has a different standard of review because FRUS is at the word level while Department of State documents reviewed at NARA are "pass/fail" at the document level. Immerman asked if it would be possible to meet the electronic records processing staff at NARA during the next meeting. Trudy Peterson reiterated that the committee wants everything for a single year released at once.

Langbart said that NARA is working on a response to State's response to NARA's letter. Additionally, statistics show that Record Group 59 is the most popular record group at NARA, with 4315 pulls (2,000 more than the nearest competitor) in FY 2011.

Efforts to Meet the 30-year Publication Line

Elizabeth Charles and James Wilson reported on their work in progress on volumes covering the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Reagan administration. In addition to providing detail of the compilation process, Charles and Wilson commented on the cooperative approach that they are taking with their volumes, which are on closely related topics.

Foreign Relations Research at the Presidential Libraries

Kristin Ahlberg opened the session with six bullet points about records access, which she cited as a key issue not just for FRUS compilers, but also for HO's internal policy studies and special projects. She cited the progress achieved with securing access to new repositories and new agreements. She underscored that it was not always possible to obtain access to every collection that HO historians needed to consult, but that the office will continue its efforts to improve access to essential collections.

Ahlberg highlighted how the Reagan subvention agreement between the DoS and the National Archives, which Ed Brynn and Nancy Smith signed in mid-January, will enable HO historians to consult the classified material from that administration, whose approximately 8.5 million pages of classified records exceeds that of any previous presidential administration. She noted how, in 2011, HO historians had met with staff from the George HW Bush Library to discuss research and relevant collections. The staff provided copies of finding aids to guide future research inquiries on that administration. She also noted how, in April 2011, the office obtained permission to have a team of HO historians visit the Bush Library. A team of three historians were scheduled to undertake team research in the Bush Vice Presidential materials in late March. She noted that the office is undertaking efforts to enhance collaboration between compilers, editors and reviewers.

Ahlberg then discussed improved HO access to many agency repositories. Randolph noted how painstaking the process is, and how heartened he was by collaboration with people across a community of professionals helping support HO's research.