Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation September 14, 2020
- Richard Immerman, Chairman
- Mary Dudziak
- James Goldgeier
- William Inboden
- Melani McAlister
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
- Christopher Morrison
- Mircea Munteanu
- David Nickles
- Zury Palencia
- 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
- Corynne Gerow
- Eric Stein
National Archives and Records Administration
- Cathleen Brennan
- Robert Fahs
- Beth Fidler
- David Langbart
- John Powers
- Amy Reytar
- Over 70 members of the public
Open Session, September 14
Approval of the Record
Adam Howard, Director of the Office of the Historian, greeted attendees at 10 a.m. and noted that while he might say “good morning,” to many, it might be “good afternoon,” or “good evening,” to others because individuals had logged in to the meeting from all over the world. Due to the number of participants, he asked that everyone except speakers turn their computer camera and microphone off, to minimize the draw on bandwidth during the sessions. Howard then turned the meeting over to Historical Advisory Committee Chairman Richard Immerman.
Immerman echoed Howard’s welcome, underscored the guidance regarding cameras, and applauded the overwhelming response to this second virtual Committee meeting. Immerman indicated that he looked forward to welcoming the newest members of the Committee pending the completion of their security clearances, and then asked for a motion to approve the minutes of the last meeting. Dudziak moved to accept the minutes, and Inboden concurred. With no dissent, the Committee approved the minutes.
Report by the Executive Secretary
Immerman then turned to Howard for the Office report on the status of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. Howard observed that his previous report to the Committee had outlined the briefing he provided to congressional staff on the challenges facing the Office in its relationship with the Department of Defense (DoD). In the time since then, he and other Office members had met twice with their counterparts at DoD to discuss the two relevant issues from the Committee’s annual report to Congress: DoD’s timeliness in reviewing FRUS material for declassification, and the quality of those reviews. Howard indicated that the positive tone of those meetings left him hopeful of progress on both of those items. He then turned to Kathleen Rasmussen, General Editor, for her report to the Committee.
Report by the General Editor
Alluding to the ongoing Covid-19 virus pandemic, Rasmussen acknowledged the unprecedented nature of this second virtual meeting and explained that since mid-March the Office has employed maximum telework for all employees. Most staff continued remote work, and thus work on FRUS occurred in unclassified, home locations. Rasmussen indicated the condition paralleled that at many agency partners such as NARA. That meant critical classified repositories remained closed to FRUS researchers. It also left reviewers and coordinators at those agencies unable to complete FRUS declassification reviews with one exception: the new team at DoD had returned some items from earlier referrals. Thus far, the team’s responses proved encouraging.
Rasmussen acknowledged that many readers view FRUS as an engine of declassification for federal documents, and that declassification certainly represented part of the mandated “thorough, accurate, and reliable” account relayed by the series. However, the FRUS production process in fact involved a balance of classified and unclassified work. In a classified setting, compilers research, collect, and organize classified documents. They draft annotation and other portions of the volume on classified systems, and the process of interagency coordination and review occurs on those systems, as does the preliminary editorial work. While that represents a lot of classified work, the series also requires a significant amount of “unseen” unclassified activities including background reading, research in unclassified repositories including those at the Department, published selections of the Presidential Papers, relevant speeches and Executive Orders, and previously declassified documents from various Freedom of Information Act collections which offer material to support FRUS volume declassification requests. Later edits, proofing, and follow-up query resolutions generally involve unclassified material. While historians might rotate between classified and unclassified portions of their portfolio regularly in the Office, telework required that compilers disaggregate those two streams. Rasmussen expressed confidence that the focus on unclassified material would make FRUS research more efficient once classified repositories reopened, and that the perspective would allow compilers to better assess which documents to select and how to organize them. She concluded by affirming her hope to meet the publication goals as currently stated on the Office of the Historian website.
Report from the Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS)
At the conclusion of Rasmussen’s report, Immerman suggested that those interested review the Committee’s previous annual report to Congress, available on the SHAFR and H-Diplo websites, to learn more about the pre-pandemic challenges in FRUS production. He then introduced Eric Stein, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Global Information Services. Stein explained the responsibilities of IPS include record-keeping, classification and declassification processes, FOIA requests, and oversight of the Bunche Library. In accordance with the Department’s implementation of the 3-phase Diplomacy Strong initiative, his office has entered phase 2. While some individuals have returned to the office, many IPS employees continue to telework. His staff will not resume FRUS declassification reviews until phase 3. He informed the Committee that he met with counterparts at the National Declassification Center (NDC) in August to plan review and declassification of N- and P-reel material and would present the proposed plan at the next Committee meeting.
Dudziak asked Stein to discuss the pandemic’s impact on the declassification timeline, especially how long it would delay reviews. Stein affirmed his commitment to the 25-year mandatory declassification review timeline. While 6 months had passed, he did not believe that necessarily had to translate into an ongoing 6-month delay in reviews. In evaluating the IPS work process and possible shifts in the allocation of declassification personnel and resources, he wanted to balance any moves with individual staff areas of expertise. Dudziak noted the Committee’s interest in the issue and Stein promised to keep the members apprised of the situation.
Report from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO)
Thanking Stein, Immerman then introduced John Powers, Associate Director for Classification Management, Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). Powers discussed his current work at the National Archives (NARA) on the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) staff and welcomed his colleagues Beth Fidler and Robert Fahs to the meeting. He reported that currently all NARA facilities remain closed, explaining that in his Archives I office (downtown DC) building, access had been restricted to one person, once a week, for only six hours. Recently, this increased to one person twice a week. That staff member solely focused on processing Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) cases and processing new appeals. All other ISOO employees work on unclassified projects from home.
Several agencies have inquired about a waiver or a delay in automatic declassification deadlines. Powers explained that, while the Executive Order did not permit waivers, it allowed for delays in limited circumstances. ISOO is working with those agencies to better understand the scope of the challenge and with the National Security Council and legal counsel to determine if a delay is permissible during the pandemic. While the ISCAP staff is working with ISCAP liaisons remotely and with some agencies on appeals, the ISCAP has not met in person since March, and Powers did not expect it to reconvene until June 2021 at the earliest. They are starting to work together virtually, but initially to complete ongoing and open cases.
ISOO staff is working with partner agencies and their Inspectors General (IG) to evaluate their security classification guides, and are working across agencies help them standardize classification decisions for the same information that multiple agencies classify This effort builds off success in the ISCAP where agencies were required to develop joint declassification guides in instances where they each classified information. This effort supports ISOO’s aim to bring more uniformity and effectiveness to classification and declassification processes.
ISOO staff also launched a multi-year project to modernize requests for information and data from agencies that it uses to compile and analyze in its annual report to the President. This data call reform project is intended to streamline all of ISOO’s data requests into a single request and limit the request to information that is useful and accurate.
Powers recognized Stein for his work in modernizing the Department’s information security and information management programs, and for recognizing the need to include technology in those processes.
In his role at the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), Powers and his staff provide logistical and administrative support for the congressionally mandated Board. In their June report to the President, A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernizing the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification System, the PIDB recommended that the President appoint a cabinet head to serve as the Executive Agent, with responsibility for modernizing policies, practices, and processes for classification and declassification. They recommended that the Executive Agent have authority to align programs across the Executive branch into a federated system that will reduce over-classification, maximize technology research and development and acquisition efficiencies, and allow for the sharing of advanced technologies and applications. PIDB member John Tierney emphasized these benefits in recent testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He described the challenges posed by over-classification and reduced declassification. Agencies disagreed on the PIDB’s main recommendation for the President to assign the Director of National Intelligence with the responsibility of serving as the Executive Agent. Powers invited HAC members and the staff of OH to attend the PIDB’s October 7 virtual public meeting to learn more.
Immerman inquired about one PIDB recommendation: the prospect of targeted declassification. Powers confirmed the PIDB’s recommendation for agencies to prioritize information of historical interest. However, he noted that agencies are not in agreement on this recommendation either, “The Devil is in the details,” he said, because what is important to one researcher may not be important to another. Current agency processes and practices also make this recommendation difficult to enact as they still have to manage a large quantity of material subject to automatic declassification and agency declassification programs also lack technologies to make this type of review more efficient. Immerman expressed intuitive support for this recommendation but reiterated the Committee’s concerns regarding scholar access to all documentation and methods of prioritization.
Dudziak asked how the concern regarding over-classification informed the ongoing review of classification guides. Powers said high level officials in some agencies had expressed interest in coordinating the classification level of material across agencies, and that the ISCAP had recently required agencies that share an interest in particular information to cooperate and identify relevant exemptions. As a result, some agencies had developed joint or multi-agency guides to address this issuer. He also highlighted the PIDB’s view that the use of advanced technologies to automate classification and much of declassification is critical in the digital age where large volumes of data are created, shared, used and stored each day.
Report from NARA (Research Services)
Immerman thanked Powers and introduced David Langbart from Research Services at NARA for his report. Langbart stated that like other NARA facilities, the building at Archives II in College Park remains closed and employees continued remote work. He referred the Committee to his written report for information on current projects, but explained his office was likely to remain closed to researchers for some time to come.
Immerman thanked Langbart for his report and concluded the first session of the meeting at 11 am.
Briefing on the FRUS Production Process
Elizabeth Charles presented an overview of FRUS production that focused on the work each historian does to compile a volume, including planning, research, selection, annotation, and revisions. Charles drew on her experience as the compiler of three volumes that dealt with the Soviet Union and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Charles’ presentation led to a lively exchange during which Charles and other office staff responded to many questions and comments, including many that were submitted in writing.
Melani McAlister asked about selecting documents that might not have gone to the highest levels of the government. Charles noted that in her volumes, which have dealt with policy toward the Soviet Union, the President was deeply involved, which meant that most important documents did go to the President. Other volumes may draw less on extensively Presidential material.
A member of the public asked how FRUS compilers knew which documents influenced decision making. Charles responded that they tried to include documents that showed various perspectives and options.
Jim Goldgeier asked what determined the size limits for FRUS volumes. Charles responded that each volume was limited to 1400 pages. Myra Burton noted that the size limit reflected the available resources for the whole production process, including declassification and editing. Kathleen Rasmussen pointed out that each volume offered a carefully curated collection, which made the best documents available in a useable format.
Richard Immerman asked about the backlog of FRUS volumes that have been published on the website but not printed. Renée Goings stated that OH planned to print those volumes as soon as funding becomes available.
A member of the public asked whether the documents cited in footnotes had been declassified. Charles said that they were not declassified as part of the FRUS process.
Another member of the public asked whether the declassification process ever changed the parts of the story that are included in FRUS. Kathy Rasmussen explained that a) OH can appeal declassification decisions; b) if the excisions that result from the declassification review would fundamentally change the story, OH will sometimes delay publication; c) OH will not release a FRUS volume unless it offers a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” account. Immerman pointed out that the HAC would be consulted if the declassification review has limited coverage, and that thus quite a few people will be involved in publication decisions.
A member of the public asked about how OH research becomes policy-relevant. Bill McAllister noted that part of the OH staff provides historical support for policy, which often draws on FRUS as well as the extensive historical data available on the OH website. They also asked if OH draws on the research and documents published by foreign governments. McAllister answered yes.
A member of the public asked whether FRUS would cover cybersecurity. James Wilson noted the National Security Policy volumes that covered the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations from 1977 to 1992 offered some limited coverage of cybersecurity.
Another member of the public asked how compilers chose the topics to be covered in each volume. Rasmussen explained that compilers initially choose the topics to be covered based on their review of the secondary literature and finding aids. Once compilers start to go through the records they often revise coverage based on what was important to policymakers.
A member of the public stated that earlier FRUS volumes had sometimes inadvertently misrepresented U.S. policy by omitting covert action.
David Langbart pointed out that OH had published a history of FRUS that provided information on many questions about what the series covered and how the office had handled declassification issues.
A member of the public asked about deletions to the documents published in FRUS. Charles explained that the volumes clearly indicate any omissions.
Richard Immerman praised Charles’ presentation, called for suggestions from the audience for other presentation topics, and closed the meeting.
Documents and Meetings Referenced