Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation March 4–5, 2019
- Richard Immerman, Chairman
- Laura Belmonte
- Mary Dudziak
- William Inboden
- Adriane Lentz-Smith
- Susan Perdue
- Trudy Peterson
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
- William McAllister
- Michael McCoyer
- Heather McDaniel
- 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
- David Zierler
Bureau of Administration
- Jeff Charlston
- Brandi Garrett
- Tim Kootz
- Marvin Russell
Department of Defense
- Cameron Morse
- George "Frosty" R. Sturgis
National Archives and Records Administration
- Marci Bayer, Textual Records Division/Accessioning Branch
- Cathleen Brennan, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch
- William Fischer, Director, National Dclassification Center
- Philip Heslip, Textual Records Division/Textual Processing Branch
- David Langbart, Textual Records Division
- John Laster, Office of Presidential Libraries
- Don McIlwain, National Declassification Center
- Bill Burr
- Seth Denbo
- Lee White
Open Session, March 4
Approval of the Record
Richard Immerman called the meeting to order and the Committee approved the minutes from the previous meeting. Renée Goings noted that Assistant Secretary Giuda was not able to attend the meeting. She welcomed the new members of the HAC, Will Inboden and Adriane Lentz-Smith, and mentioned that the Office could not yet officially announce the new Historian. She noted, however, that Adam Howard was now alone in the position of Acting Director.
Report of the Acting Historian
Howard provided an update on FRUS activities. He also noted that there would be a SHAFR panel on the Clinton research plan, which would include Office historians Joshua Botts and Louise Woodroofe, an archivist from the Clinton Library, and Immerman.
Immerman also welcomed the new members of the HAC and noted that two other new members—Daryl Press and David Engerman—were not able to attend. He discussed the two primary areas of cooperation with the Office that would likely dominate 2019: 1) the declassification process; and 2) controversies surrounding Presidential Libraries’ accession practices and whether the Obama Presidential Library will serve as a model going forward.
Report on Reviewing
David Geyer provided the Committee with an overview of the FRUS review process. He discussed the historical role that review has played in the office, and provided details on how the review proceeds. After Geyer’s presentation, Immerman opened the floor for questions.
Immerman asked how is it determined who does the review for any given volume. Geyer responded that Division Chiefs usually do the first reviews, and then the General Editor or the Assistant to the General Editor does the second review.
Peterson asked what the issues are in reviewing a volume chapter by chapter. Geyer responded that sometimes this is faster and better fits into a reviewers’ schedule, but also sometimes it’s best to have the whole volume before beginning a review. This depends on the type of volume. A regional volume with chapters on separate countries may lend itself better to reviewing chapter by chapter.
Dudziak asked a question about the interchange between evolving historiography and compiling volumes. Geyer and Howard responded that this was done at the series planning level and less at the compilation and reviewing level. Geyer added that trends in historiography were taken into account during the series planning stage.
A member of the public asked about the status of systematic reviews taking place at the Presidential Libraries. Immerman responded that declassification was driven by FOIA and MDR (mandatory declassification reviews), but he said he was unaware of whether this was an official decision. He added that for all practical purposes no systematic reviews were taking place at the presidential libraries. Dudziak commented that a public outcry is necessary to change this state of affairs. A discussion ensued regarding how best to address the issue.
The session concluded at 11:45 a.m.
Closed Session, March 4
Status of Declassification of Department of State Records
Immerman called the afternoon session to order at 1:05 p.m. He announced that the session would begin with John Laster of NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries instead of Tim Kootz and Jeff Charlston of IPS, who would now present later in the session.
Office of Presidential Libraries
Laster opened his remarks with a report on the status of reviews. He began by addressing the question as to whether the Presidential Libraries were moving away from systematic reviews of classified material. He passed around a handout to the HAC members which illustrated the current backlog of reviews at the Libraries. Referencing the escalating number of reviews legally required of them—driven mainly by the growth of FOIA cases at the Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush Libraries—Laster acknowledged that waning emphasis was placed on systematic review. He hastened to add that the Libraries were not abandoning systematic review entirely, but explained that the rising numbers of MDR, FOIA, and 25-year Declassification Review cases limited what the Libraries were able to do on this front.
Laster stated that limited resources acted as a constraint in dealing with the current backlog, especially with regard to FOIA cases. To mitigate this, the Libraries had modified some of its FOIA review practices, including dropping automatic referrals and granting requesters the option to refine and reframe their requests as MDRs, with the assurance that this provided requesters with enhanced appeal rights. In doing so, Laster conceded, the Libraries have better managed their FOIA backlogs, but have concurrently increased the size of their MDR backlogs.
Immerman responded to Laster’s remarks by stating that the backlog numbers did not surprise him. He asked Laster comment further on why there has been such an “explosion” in MDR and FOIA cases and whether there are any solutions to this—other than the provision of increased resources—that might mitigate this growth.
Laster said he wished he had a better response to Immerman’s questions, stating that he believed that additional resources were indeed the most needed to address the situation. He agreed that the growing numbers were not surprising, adding that the MDR backlog was enhanced by the number of outstanding cases at older Libraries that were not subject to the FOIA law.
Discussion then turned to the Remote Archives Capture (RAC), the program established in 1996 to deal with the 25-year mandatory review crunch which has now been curtailed due to a lack of funding. Laster explained the origins and mechanics of the project, noting its initial advantages in speeding reviews of documentation by equity-holding U.S. Government agencies and its corresponding limitations created largely by constrained resources available for review by the equity-holders. Laster then returned to the handout, re-emphasizing that the numbers presented reflect current, open cases.
Inboden interjected to ask Laster to explain the procedures for MDR review. In doing so, Laster returned to the role of the RAC in this process, explaining that it completely covered materials held by the Carter Library and those of earlier administrations. The RAC project was only able to complete scanning of approximately half of the materials at the Reagan Library before funding ran out.
Dudziak expressed her concern that the declining emphasis on systematic review might be creating a situation whereby Library researchers would be compelled to increasingly file FOIA and MDR to obtain documents. She also expressed concern that diminished systematic review deprived researchers of traditional finding aids for the Library collections, compelling them to file FOIAs and MDRs without full appreciation of the nature of the material they were requesting. In an ensuing back-and-forth exchange, Dudziak and Laster discussed the merits of a possible ‘reset’ of NARA practices. Acknowledging Dudziak’s point that an unintended consequence of the FOIA and MDR processes is that the backlogs for these reviews will continue to grow, Laster reminded the HAC that NARA’s legal obligations to process FOIA and MDR cases limited the prospect of any reset to the current system of review of classified material.
Peterson joined the conversation by stating that the issue of the Library finding aids is not connected to the process of systematic review. She then asked Laster to clarify whether the FOIA backlog numbers also include cases described as ‘FOIA’, despite their connection to materials held at Libraries not covered by the FOIA law. The ensuing back-and-forth on the technicalities of these cases indicated that these cases were indeed reflected in the current backlog, prompting Peterson to suggest that new, more distinctive terminology be developed to better describe this type of case.
Immerman pointed out that MDRs and FOIAs were often responding to requests for very recent documentation. He wondered whether the National Declassification Center (NDC) might help identify the types of documents being FOIA’d as a way of making a more responsive systematic review possible. In response, Laster noted that FOIA cases covered a wide range of subjects and types of documentation (implying that there was not likely any dominant trend in FOIA requests). Immerman, referencing prior experiences at the Eisenhower Library, nevertheless expressed hope that strategies could be found. Laster reminded the HAC that automatic declassification rules might be a help in this regard. He also noted that the consolidation of classified records from Presidential Libraries at the NDC could be leveraged to aid the process moving forward, but cautioned that doing this would do nothing to help the current backlog. Peterson asked for clarification regarding the percentage of FOIA cases that dealt with classified material, since these (unlike MDR) often pertained to both classified and unclassified materials. Laster responded that the handout referred to this.
Howard asked Laster to confirm whether the RAC would cease to be an aid for FRUS research moving forward. Laster stated that while the project continued to function (and process the estimated 2 million pages of un-reviewed documentation in the system) there were no funds for further scanning. However, he floated the possibility that this could be reviewed once the consolidation was completed.
From here discussion turned to the consolidation of Library materials at the NDC. Howard asked Laster if there was a timeline for this effort. Laster told him that the goal was to develop a plan for consolidation by the end of the current fiscal year (NOTE: in subsequent comment made in a later session, Fischer clarified that the goal is for a plan by the end of the current CALENDAR year). The actual physical movement of material, he continued, would then occur over a 1–2 year period, though this would be determined as the process went along. In response to a question from Inboden, Laster confirmed that all classified material would be returning. However, NARA was still trying to decide what to do with remaining unclassified material in classified boxes held at the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush Libraries and was uncertain that there would be resources available to screen this material out. He added that after declassifying, the documents would then be returned to the Libraries for re-integration into the collections. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, neither the plans nor the personnel for this have been put into place.
This prompted questions from Immerman and Dudziak about the mechanics of processing the classified materials and their eventual re-integration. Laster responded that he was unsure how this would happen, but added that NARA was aware that these were challenges it would have to face.
Citing the New York Times article about the Obama Library’s plans, Immerman expressed the historical community’s increasing concern about documentation becoming inaccessible to researchers. He bolstered this statement by referencing Bosanko’s comment to the HAC that the Obama Library model would be the model for Presidential Libraries moving forward. Laster affirmed that NARA was committed to a new model, but left open the prospect that circumstances could change unexpectedly. Immerman advised that NARA maintain a robust dialogue with public stakeholders as the process moves forward.
Peterson asked whether there was a collection strategy for Obama-era materials, which led to a general discussion of donated historical materials at the Libraries. Regarding Obama material, Laster responded by stating that NARA was working through problems of storage as it sought to bring collections together. He contrasted this situation with earlier periods where the JFK, LBJ, and Eisenhower Libraries were able to take in and process a larger volume of donated materials as they did not have to deal with FOIA. At the same time, he pointed out that the Reagan Library had also been able to bring in significant amounts of donated material.
Immerman introduced the DOD representatives attending the session, Cameron Morse and George “Frosty” Sturgis. He then turned the floor over to Jeffrey Charlston from IPS. In response to an earlier comment, Charlston told the Committee members that the RAC project is out of funding and will not be continued beyond the Reagan years. He added that the projected move of classified materials from all Presidential Libraries is on its 3-year timeline schedule.
Timothy Kootz, from IPS Records Access (IPS/RA), told the Advisory Committee that the deadline for managing records electronically for the Presidential Records Project is 2019. He then described how the office was approaching the task: Policies, Systems, Access, and Disposition. Since 2016 IPS/RA has improved its approach. Some lessons learned from the process: data must be centralized, and, given the volume of collection, big-data approach with machine learning and AI-assistance must be employed. Data collected by the program is unstructured, Kootz noted, and the process needs to be simplified as it matures.
Speaking of the Records Disposition Schedule Project (RDSP), Kootz reported that the program will leave hard copies in place so that born paper records will stay paper and that electronic content will be “date-forward” (i.e. capture all content from a specified date forward). Kootz also reported that the Project would consolidate at the Bureau level the disposition schedules for electronic records and mirror Capstone for all electronic captures for senior officials. Finally, Kootz added, they are seeking to create an updated incentive of what they already captured and who was producing documents. He also reported that IPS/RA submitted 16 consolidated schedules to NARA, and reduced by 19 percent the items in their distribution.
Immerman asked what the cost of this entire process is to researchers, given that this “big bucket” may be overwhelming. Kootz responded that, while the amount of content could be overwhelming, most of it is also irrelevant. Machine learning and AI assisted searches would mitigate these issues.
Charlston noted that the Systematic Review Program (SRP) had a successful 2018 and that the paper and electronic review teams met the 2018 requirements for the 25 year review program, completing a total of 7.9 million pages of review. Regarding FRUS review, they reviewed 7 FRUS volumes and verified two additional ones. The team also reviewed 2,250 Mandatory Declassification Review requests—including 650 requests submitted directly to the Department and 1600 referred to the Department by other agencies—and over 100 requests by other governments to review and declassify records from their holdings. Conversely, IPS opened 752 new MDRs in 2018. Charlston noted that paper records review is declining but that electronic review will begin experiencing exponential growth. He also briefly discussed the costs associated with processing MDRs. Moving forward, Charlston added, the Department plans to have quarterly releases of MDRs on the Department’s FOIA page. The new website, he told the Committee, would allow e-filing of MDR, as well as back and forth with researchers to allow for better targeting of requests. Dudziak suggested that the Committee might be able to publicize the costs of the MDR process to allow researchers to better target what they want to request.
Charlston informed the Committee on the approval of the Department’s Declassification Guide. He noted that on January 2019, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) formally approved the guide. According to instructions from ISCAP, Agencies with classified holdings were to revise their existing Declassification Guides to more carefully identify that information which remained sensitive after 25 years and, even more narrowly, at 50 years to reflect the mandate stipulated in EO 13526 that no record can remain classified forever. The Department’s Guide was reworked to clarify language in accordance with the Panel’s request and to specifically identify declassifiable information once a record reaches 25 and 50 years old. The Guide now been approved by the Members and has been disseminated to reviewers both at the Department and at the National Declassification Center. He noted that the Guide is for equity recommendations and that agencies still have to send the documents to the Department.
Peterson asked if the transfer of documents to NARA has been completed. Kootz replied that the Department surpassed its targets but that he does not have the exact numbers.
National Declassification Center
McIlwain began by introducing the new chief of the National Declassification Center, Bill Fischer. Fischer stated that although his title had changed, his principles remain the same and that he values the work of the HAC. He vowed to keep communication between the NDC and the HAC open. Fischer said that he had spoken to other officials at NARA and those officials also support the mission of the HAC.
McIlwain asked if anyone had any questions. As an aside, he remarked that the Department of State was one the largest and most cooperative partners in dealing with FOIA requests and MDRs. He stated that Marvin Russell has been very helpful, in particular. McIlwain added that he stresses to his staff that there is a person on the end of every single request and that person is waiting to see their documents. Inboden asked about the NDC’s spectrum of authority. What if, for instance, one agency with equity in a document does not respond to a declassification request, despite responses from all the other agencies with equity? McIlwain responded that the model used by the Inter-agency Referral Center (and spelled out in section 3.3d of the Executive Order) is that one-year after a formal notification of referral, that agency's equity is automatically declassified. Further discussion is needed to determine if and how this could apply to consultations. McIlwain added that the NDC had the ability to challenge a declassification decision but such an action only occurs on rare occasions. McIlwain said that any decision that is challenged proceeds to the ISCAP. McIlwain stressed that he tries to get to “yes” without using these options, but he has used them in the past.
Immerman stated he was happy that Fischer was in his new position and that the HAC desires to continue its close relationship with the NDC.
Langbart introduced himself to the new members of the Committee. He noted that due to the government shutdown, NARA in College Park was closed for the majority of January. Therefore they only accessioned a few new records from the Department (RG 59 and 84), AID, and NSA. He noted that the members had the read-ahead that contained the specifics and numbers of these accessions.
Langbart noted that the planned processing work for RGs 43, 59, and 306 had been completed and work was now turning to RG 84.
Langbart noted that the Reference Branch had received approximately 2000 inquiries since December 2018: 850 in December, 200 in January 2019, and about 1000 in February and they are currently working on the backlog caused by the shutdown. The research rooms are also busy since they reopened. Unfortunately their projected catalog improvements had been delayed because of the shutdown.
Langbart noted the telegrams reintegration project has gone live on NARA’s website as described at the last meeting, and they’re working on making it more user-friendly. Immerman asked if the restoration process for the telegrams is lengthy. Langbart replied that they get the telegrams from the NDC, then scan and OCR them, then transfer them to Electronic Records and put them online. Since 2018, they’ve only had a few handfuls to add, and are hoping to keep the backlog to a minimum.
Peterson asked about when the recent transfers from the Department had been received. Bayer said she wasn’t sure but would get back to the Committee ASAP with that information. Langbart said the recent transfers from RG 59, 84, and 286 (AID) were from the 1980s. The NSA transfer was from the 1940s through the 1960s. Inboden asked how NARA processes the NSA records. Langbart said the NDC would review those records.
McIlwain said the Intelligence Community has the ability to exempt information from 25 or 50 years. Nothing stays classified forever, but these documents could be good candidates for a MDR to expedite their declassification. Inboden asked how long it takes to process the NSA referral. McIlwain could not say for sure but it has to go through the proscribed process. If it’s researcher-driven it could go faster, but acknowledged it’s not a high priority right now for the NDC.
Lentz-Smith asked whether all reference inquiries are saved. Langbart said that reference inquiries are not preserved as permanent records. He did note that some requests are entertaining.
Immerman asked whether researches came to the Archives during the shutdown. Langbart said probably but he wasn’t there to confirm. The session ended at 3:02 p.m.
Briefing for the Committee, March 4
Briefing by the Joint Historian
Michael McCoyer, the Joint Historian with the CIA, gave a briefing to the committee regarding the criteria for including covert actions within FRUS compilations and volumes.