March 2017

Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation March 6-7, 2017

Briefing Record

Committee Members

  • Richard Immerman, Chairman
  • Laura Belmonte
  • Mary Dudziak
  • James McAllister
  • Robert McMahon
  • Susan Perdue
  • Trudy Peterson
  • Katherine Sibley
  • Thomas Zeiler

Office of the Historian

  • Stephen Randolph, Historian
  • Kristin Ahlberg
  • Carl Ashley
  • Forrest Barnum
  • Joshua Botts
  • Myra Burton
  • Tiffany Cabrera
  • Seth Center
  • Mandy Chalou
  • Elizabeth Charles
  • Evan Duncan
  • Stephanie Eckroth
  • Thomas Faith
  • David Geyer
  • Renée Goings
  • Charles Hawley
  • Kerry Hite
  • Adam Howard
  • Aiyaz Husain
  • Aaron Marrs
  • William McAllister
  • Michael McCoyer
  • Heather McDaniel
  • Christopher Morrison
  • David Nickles
  • Paul Pitman
  • Alex Poster
  • Kathleen Rasmussen
  • Seth Rotramel
  • Daniel Rubin
  • Nathaniel Smith
  • Melissa Jane Taylor
  • Chris Tudda
  • Dean Weatherhead
  • Joe Wicentowski
  • Alexander Wieland
  • James Wilson
  • Louise Woodroofe
  • David Zierler

Bureau of Administration

  • David Adamson
  • Keri Lewis
  • Marvin Russell

National Archives and Records Administration

  • Cathleen Brennan, Textual Records Division/Archives II Reference Branch
  • Meghan Ryan Guthorn, Textual Records Division/Accessioning Section
  • Phil Heslip, Textual Records Division/Processing Section
  • David Langbart, Textual Records Division
  • Don McIlwain, National Declassification Center
  • Madeline Proctor, National Declassification Center
  • Amy Reytar, Archives II Reference Branch
  • Sheryl Shenberger, Director, National Declassification Center
  • Erin Townsend, Director, Textual Records Division


  • William Burr
  • Nate Jones
  • Lee White

Open Session, March 6

Report by the Historian

Stephen Randolph opened the meeting at 11 a.m. Randolph then introduced Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Susan Stevenson and asked Stevenson to comment on the status of the Iran, 1951–1954 volume. Stevenson explained that the Bureau continued to seek the volume’s release during the end of the last administration. Once the new administration was in office, the Bureau decided to wait until April to seek the volume’s release in order to assess the situation and for senior level appointees to be in place.

Randolph welcomed back to the Office Amy Garrett, who has resumed her former role as Chief of the Policy Studies Division. Randolph also mentioned the two panels at the American Historical Society’s meeting in Colorado that highlighted the work of the office. Randolph then addressed the Office’s work on the Argentina transparency project.

Randolph referred to the digital release of FRUS back catalogue. The next release will be timed for the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. Randolph added that, in conjunction with these releases, the first installment of the Office’s project on the activities of U.S. embassies in Europe during World War I will be published on the Office’s website. This work, written by Seth Rotramel, Charles Hawley, and William McAllister, will be released incrementally over the next several months.

Report by the General Editor

Randolph turned the floor over the Adam Howard. Howard noted that between 2014 and 2016, the Office published 27 FRUS volumes, the most volumes that the Office has ever produced in comparable time period. Howard also pointed out that, since the 1990s, the Office produced the first volume in the 28 year time line. The volume was James Wilson’s Soviet Union, 1986–1988 volume.

Katherine Sibley asked for more information on the World War I diplomatic history project. Mary Dudziak also asked how the historical narratives will be organized. Randolph went into more depth about the project, explaining that after the release of the an general introduction of U.S. efforts to aid stranded U.S. citizens in 1914 in Europe, subsequent chapters will detail events in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and Petrograd. Thomas Zeiler asked whether H-Diplo will know about the WWI narratives. Randolph responded that the question of broadcasting the release of the project will be studied. Dudziak commented that this project was great for the Office, very appropriate for SHAFR and should be broadcasted. David Langbart noted that there could be a joint broadcast with NARA relating to the digitization and publishing online of a massive amount of microfilmed material covering World War I. There followed a general discussion of how to promote and coordinate the release of the WWI material.

The Committee adjourned at 11:32 a.m. for lunch.

Closed Session, March 6

National Archives National Declassification Center

Immerman convened the afternoon session at 1:06 p.m. and asked Charlston (IPS) to give his report.

Office of Information Programs and Services

Sheryl Shenberger of the National Declassification Center (NDC) provided the committee with an update on the “Priority Review” records collections pilot program. She explained that the NDC functions on two tracks: as a factory, with assembly line in stages of declassification; or as prioritization with focus on specific topics, themes, and record groups. For this pilot program or “special project” the reviewers are able to delve more comprehensively into a specific record group and follow the declassification process from start to finish. This makes the work more interesting for the reviewers and can ensure more consistency in the process. RG 330, Files of the Secretary of Defense, was chosen for the pilot effort. While this is a large collection, the project found ways to break it into smaller segments and work in stages. They divided the declassification into 2 stages: 1) records that are easily processed and 2) records in need of more detailed review and redaction.

Shenberger lamented about the lack of resources for digitization. Madeline Proctor, division chief in charge of the pilot project, gathered data on previous processing and equity reviews. They learned that inconsistencies abounded. Some equity holders mark documents with small stamps or bands labelled “exempt”—which are difficult to see. Their group is auditing the records in the group to clean up errors.

As of March, 509,666 documents were released in full. Another 722,650 are in the referral process at various agencies. They instituted a referral cycle—as the referrals must be returned within one year. To make this easier on the agencies, they send a monthly allotment so there is always a rolling list of documents due. The monthly cycle is designed to keep from overwhelming the agencies and keeps the referrals on track. Shenberger and Proctor explained that the agencies were doing a good job with the reviews and there was good coordination to keep the process on target.

Shenberger reiterated that by looking at specific requested topics of interest, focusing on sub-series within the RG 330, they are hopefully able to process documents that only need minimal redaction and can be digitized and put online for access.

Immerman asked about the 722,650 documents in the referral track with agencies. What are the main agencies? Is there anything out of the ordinary? And are they satisfied with the return rate from agencies?

Proctor responded that they had a good return rate and cooperation from agencies. Shenberger did chime in that their reviewers are empowered to push back and question the agencies when they deem it necessary.

Sibley asked about the 509,000 records. Shenberger commented that with about a 50–60% release rate, her hope was to only redact small amounts of material from certain documents, thus making more records available.

David Langbart asked about the time frame for the records. He knew of cases where 1950s OSD files are not processed, noting they get many requests for OSD and Assistant Secretary for International Affairs records. Are these included in this project’s focus? He later noted JCS should be included in this list.

Proctor responded she would have to look at specific decimal file data to find this information for him. One collection covers 1951–1966, another 1957–1974. Most are processed by year.

Immerman asked if there are lessons learned from this pilot program? Shenberger responded that breaking up the project into smaller parts, by time period, etc.,—allows for the reviewers to see the records through declassification from start to finish. This seems to be a much more rewarding system for processing than the “assembly line” method. The reviewers have greater familiarity with the sensitivities of the topics which makes reviews easier to complete. Prioritization of topics and themes narrows the compartments of records, makes a huge number of records more manageable, and has seemed to help with processing.

Dudziak inquired about how researchers can submit priority requests for collections. As President of SHAFR, she wants to find a way to inform SHAFR membership of this program. Shenberger explained that the NDC blog requested input last year for the project. After discussion, it was agreed that having an explanatory link—with project goals and parameters on the website would be most useful for all researchers.

Immerman asked how the NDC decides what to digitize. Is there criteria? Shenberger explained the reviewers who work under Proctor are all historians with great expertise. They have suggestions as to what would be most useful for researchers. Sometimes suggestions are based on anniversaries of upcoming historical events, such as the Czech 1968 invasion.

Shenberger then informed the committee of another project to “re-review” older records—which while processed long ago—might still contain great numbers of withdrawals and redactions. These sometimes “forgotten” records need attention and should be looked at again. Because of the age of many of them there has been about an 80% release rate thus far.

Immerman asked McIlwain for his report. McIlwain asked if everyone had a chance to look at his read-ahead. Immerman verified that the committee received it, and offered the only comment, noting that he was please to see that the Department of Energy (DOE) completed 1977. McIlwain mentioned that 1977 along with 1978 P-reel printouts will be processed and that soon DOE will get to work on the 1979 P-reels. Immerman commented that now things seem to be in sync. McIlwain acknowledged that there was a backlog of accessioned material from the earlier period but now DOE is moving ahead at a good pace. This, he noted is the final indexing process. Indexing on demand, he continued, remains a success since its inception, with 9.6 million pages processed with an 81 percent release rate. McIlwain emphasized that with indexing on demand, it is important to remember that there is a real live human on the other side of the request, so that there is much satisfaction to be had in delivering on these requests—people really do want this material.

McIlwain then gave an overview of items for the near future—about one million pages of Department material coming from Record Groups 59, 286, and 386 which has been accessioned at NARA with the plan for reviews to begin this year. From there, McIlwain noted, the DOE plans to do the quality assurance review and then NARA will complete the final indexing. Switching to his “FOIA Chief” mode, McIlwain was proud to note that this past year he and his staff have closed the ten oldest extant cases, one going back to 1993. He said he was confident that this upcoming year will clear out the next ten cases, due in no small part to the fact that he has in place a good process, whereby nagging issues get kicked up the ladder first to his deputy, then to him, and then if a given agency continues to stonewall, McIlwain gets NARA’s chief counsel involved to bring the matter up with his counterpart at the agency in question. This has proven to be an effective process.

Sibley asked for McIlwain to describe some of the issues in the ten oldest cases that he referenced. McIlwain said that most revolved around the Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that a number of issues came together to create this elongated time frame. Sometimes the issues are truly thorny, sometimes people are sitting on the necessary paperwork, and other times, he had secured responses from four agencies but the case involved five total agencies, and the holdout agency is simply non-responsive. Sibley then asked that after all this time, wouldn’t scholars/graduate students, etc., tire of waiting and move on to other pursuits? McIlwain replied that more often the requests are coming from civil society organizations such as the Federation of Scientists, or the National Security Archive, and their institutional interest in a given issue does not erode over time. And in those cases, McIlwain noted, he has cultivated a good rapport with these organizations and asked them to help him prioritize his requests so that he knows what issues to push hardest for release.

Immerman then noted that recently there has been an overhaul of declassification guidance, and he asked McIlwain how this has affected his process. Did he find it disruptive? McIlwain replied that he works with all the agencies on an ongoing basis. He noted that every agency needs to have its guidelines approved by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP). McIlwain said that he has one person one staff whose main job is to review all the agency updates and then communicate with the agencies with the focus on what can still be classified after 50 and/or 75 years. Agencies must then apply valid exemptions, and in turn, McIlwain’s staff must be careful in providing accurate oversight. This, he observed, was a continuous education process because by definition the issues are fluid.

Randolph then asked McIlwain how he organizes a review of agencies across the Executive Branch. McIlwain replied that an interagency committee serves as the clearinghouse to deal with all the issues and hash them out as necessary. Keri Lewis, who serves on the ISCAP, offered an answer. She explained that all agencies must submit guidance every five years; the first round began in 2011 and the second round is ongoing. It took a year after the first round for all 17 agencies to submit guidance, and in round 2, ISCAP goes through line by line to determine if the guidelines match the spirit and intent of the Executive Order. It determines if the material an agency asserts to be withheld actually conforms to the order.

Immerman then asked if ISCAP’s ruling is finite. Lewis replied that indeed it was. ISCAP has to determine if the guidance allows any wiggle room, and of course it is not always easy to determine how information that is 50-plus years old might be considered a current threat if released. McIlwain then noted that, in addition to the formal guidance there are waivers that certain agencies submit which say that certain issues are cleared—they don’t want to see them land back on their desks. This, McIlwain observed, is a win-win for everyone—his staff is not doing work it doesn’t need to do, and the agency is freed up for other issues. Lewis then interjected that ISCAP has decided in certain cases that NSC and Department waivers should be featured front and center for all to see, which has proved useful. McIlwain then said he has not personally attended an ISCAP meeting but he had seen a final appellate meeting which proved fascinating to see what gets released at that level. Reflecting on the overall effort, McIlwain noted that it is a lot of work but the results justify it. Immerman then concluded the conversation, humorously noting, that given this is a government-based conversation, it all struck him as counterintuitively rationale.

National Archives National Declassification Center

Don McIlwain reported that the 1978 P-Reels are back from the DOE for final indexing. On the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) side, they smashed their backlog goals. The NDC is hoping to move forward on doing some consulting on both FOIA and other historical requests with officials already on-site at NARA, so they don’t have to spend time and resources sending boxes around.

Immerman asked about indexing on demand. McIlwain said they had a slight increase in requests. He also mentioned that production could be affected by updates/renovations to their classified facilities.

Immerman asked how they’d made progress on the backlog. McIlwain replied that they had streamlined their processes a few years ago and that this was bearing fruit. They are also fully staffed and the staff is being more aggressive in follow-ups to non-compliant agencies.

Peterson asked why the DOE completed ’78 before ’77. McIlwain reported that the accession numbers were randomly lower for 78 than 77.

Office of Information Programs and Services

Bill Fischer opened the IPS portion of the session with an announcement about a new Department FOIA initiative called “Release to One, Release to All.” He explained that going forward all documents released in response to FOIA requests would be posted to the Department’s FOIA website one month after the initial release to the original requester. He said the only exceptions would be for cases that involve privacy issues or “first person” requests (for documents related to an individual’s own personal affairs). Dudziak asked if the original FOIA requests or queries also would be posted and Fischer responded that they would not. He said the database would include searchable metadata and would accommodate full text searches.

Lewis began her official remarks by offering regrets on behalf of Jeff Charleston, who was unable to attend thanks to a commitment at FSI. She updated the committee on the continuing Newington move, and stated that the renovation of classified spaces was on temporary hold but was expected to resume shortly.

Immerman interjected, noting that he and the HAC were very keen to visit the new facility. Lewis indicated such a visit would be welcome at any time.

Lewis resumed by confirming the electronic review room had been completed, although no computers had been installed within it as yet. She related a sense that the offices in the new facility were ‘phenomenal.’

Moving onto records issues, Lewis noted IPS had completed year 1991 records and was well into 1992 records (both paper and digital). Thus far, 390,000 electronic documents had been reviewed in the fiscal year and the office was on pace to meet the 1.38 million electronic documents processed in the prior fiscal year. IPS has processed 605,000 paper pages in the last month and the office was maintaining an impressive 99.3% release rate for paper documents.

Moving to the RAC review, she suggested the process was going well. She noted IPS was attempting to solve an apparent disconnect where the Department was receiving an inordinate number of RAC referrals. The effort had been stalled somewhat thanks to the recently implemented hiring freeze.

Lewis then addressed the Systematic Review Program (SRP) Division, opening by noting she had become ISCAP liaison last spring. She observed that the ISCAP appellant process was quite involved but productive, noting that the goal was the release of the most transparent version of the guideline documents under review. She used the recent release of PDBs from the CIA archives as an example, noting it was the result of a six month discussion intended to ultimately reduce the number of excisions.

SRP Division was working through the backlog of cases since she undertook efforts to reform the process last October. She noted that SRP Division has taken over some 1,100 George H.W. Bush cases from regional offices, which had often been too busy to handle the requests in a timely manner. Some 996 of these cases had been closed thus far.

The MDR cases in the backlog were also being handled. Processes which had proven useful in SRP Division were being applied to the backlog of other branches. There were about 1,000 outstanding cases remaining. The most substantial problem concerned a migration between computer systems which IPS undertook in 2010–2011 which has caused the older records to be quite time consuming.

TS/SCI and SAP backlog was also being vigorously attacked, and since October, this material had been a priority and over 400 such cases had been closed. Lewis expressed confidence that the remaining cases would be resolved soon.

She noted that production in 2016 had been three times that of 2015 in SRP Division and that 2017 was on pace to meet the pace of the previous year. Thus far 1,100 cases had been closed.

Lewis expressed pride in the role played by SRP Division in furnishing documents to the Argentine Government concerning the Dirty War following a request made to President Obama during his visit in March 2015. Lewis praised the excellent work done by Sara Berndt of the Historian’s Office to gather the pertinent documents; she suggested that work was almost done on both electronic and paper documents; she predicted the NSC deadline would be met for completing the project.

Eleven FRUS volumes had been reviewed in the previous year, Lewis related—an impressive average of sixty-seven days per volume on average. She was confident that other volumes in the pipeline would be completed this fall.

Immerman asked if the recently implemented hiring freeze was affecting IPS. Lewis answered that it had, observing that new WAEs could not be brought on to perform mission critical work and that a pending reorganization of the SRP Division would be affected if the freeze did not lapse after 90 days.

Randolph expressed his thanks for Lewis’s and her organization’s hard work. Chris Tudda observed that the very dense START I volume had been cleared in less than 120 days with no excisions, a remarkable achievement. Immerman seconded Randolph’s praise and offered his own for Lewis’s exceptional knowledge and clarity for which the HAC was grateful. Lewis noted her organization was composed of great people doing great work.

NARA Research Services

Immerman introduced David Langbart after announcing that John Laster could not attend the meeting due to an emergency request at the Office of Presidential Libraries.

Langbart said he would elaborate on his Read-Ahead: Department records (RG 59) and transfers from RG 84 (Diplomatic Posts), RG 306 (Americans participants overseas) records, RG 263 (CIA Studies, intelligence reports) continue. He reported that the processing project covering USIA records continues with 684 cubic feet consisting of 142 entries completed. Still to be completed are the USIA geographic offices and the team has made very good progress on that project. He also noted that Phil Heslip, the project’s team leader, has been promoted and this will be his last project before he moves on to his new responsibilities.

He stated that the 2-year Finding Aids Project is off to a good start. The team is inventorying the finding aids for 654 Record Groups. He noted that interns are contributing to the successful completion of the project. Cate Brennan said they are on track to finish this year’s plan and Langbart praised her efforts.

Archives I and II received 29,000 written/phone reference inquiries and had hosted approximately 59,000 researchers on site during FY 2016.

Immerman congratulated the Archives for this work and asked about organization and staffing. He asked if the USIA project will be affected by the hiring freeze. Langbart responded that Heslip is finishing the project despite his promotion. Erin Townsend noted that no hiring has taken place since the beginning of the calendar year. Immerman asked if the hiring freeze will seriously affect NARA’s other current projects. Townsend stated that FY 17 projects should be okay but they will have to look closely at FY 18 projects. McIlwain said that in declassification a freeze will affect work if it’s combined with a delay in the clearance process for hiring new employees. Immerman replied that this hiring freeze has taken on more importance than in the past.

Belmonte asked whether this freeze will affect the processing of the new USIA collections. Langbart replied that it is all part of the cataloguing including the new collections. Processing records in as close to final form as possible is the most efficient way to create good Finding Aids. Belmonte asked if any of the USIA records are still in microfilm. Langbart replied that most of them are in paper form. He also said that they’re only dealing with records that have been declassified by the National Declassification Center.

Zeiler asked about the 59,000 onsite researchers, which means the staff is handling approximately 200 researchers per day. How can they handle such numbers? Langbart said that the numbers are a combination from Archives I in downtown DC and Archives II in College Park, MD and the Research Room is always busy. Zeiler asked if they are all receiving the same kind of attention. Langbart replied that researchers are receiving the same attention. Immerman asked how NARA defines a reference inquiry. Langbart stated that emails, letters, and phone calls all fall under inquiries. He also clarified that not all of the inquiries count as unique requests/visits. Dudziak asked which division Langbart is referring to. Langbart replied that the numbers refer to what Textual Services has received at both Archives I and II.

Zeiler asked how an official visit to NARA is defined. Langbart replied that they define a visit as a researcher entering the Research Room on a given day. He said that so far staffing has been adequate to help researchers. Townsend added that supervisors and other archivists get pulled in to help staff if the staff are overwhelmed.

Zeiler asks if the public research room has ever reached full capacity. Langbart said yes and when that happens they move researchers into their overflow area.

Randolph asked about the Finding Aids project. Langbart says that they are creating a box and folder lists in both hard copy and an online catalogue and detailing the progress/results in the tradition of the National Archives. Immerman asks if individual documents are catalogued. Langbart said the online catalogue will be searchable by office/subject and descriptions of the collections as well as topic, dates, and the like. What he described as “augmented processing.”

Immerman raised Bill Mayer's comments from a previous meeting about NARA hiring practices. Townsend stated that was specifically about paid student interns and that OPM had said that NARA had not been using the program appropriately, so students could not/cannot be hired. Instead they hired archives technicians and now also "hire" unpaid interns who can also get college credit for their work. Belmonte asked for information about that program so she could pass it along to her public history students.

Sibley asked whether or not diplomatic history is still a main area of researcher interest. Langbart said yes it is still a big area of interest.

Cate Brennan stated that other records such as DOJ, FBI, Treasury, SEC, Railroads, and ICC are also popular research subjects. Langbart explained that the Railroad/ICC valuation projects have to do with rails and trail mapping. There is a large range of interests and Veterans Affairs is another big one. There is much interest in PTSD, Agent Orange, ship logs, and OSD records. Often there is a direct reflection of academic interests that require the use of federal records that drive researcher visits and requests.

Langbart reminded the Committee members to advise their students and fellow researchers to write ahead to ask about records and their availability, the more specific the better. When asked about researchers visiting the Archives when in DC for the SHAFR Conference he said that if everyone from SHAFR goes to NARA before/during/after the Conference it will be too crowded and overwhelm the staff.

Tudda noted that one reason SHAFR is held in DC every other year is precisely because it gives members the chance to do research at NARA and other federal repositories in the area. Immerman concurred. This led to a general discussion of the use of the Archives when SHAFR is in DC. Langbart acknowledged Tudda's point but noted that it has caused serious overcrowding in the past. He also noted that most researchers do not adequately prepare for a visit and do not take advantage of learning opportunities. To illustrate the latter point, he added that only 5–6 people came to his session on doing research at the Archives at the last DC SHAFR.

Dudziak suggested that NARA use social media platforms in order to post FAQs. Langbart said NARA could provide input for SHAFR to give guidance to conference attendees planning on going to the Archives. Belmonte asked if NARA can extend its hours. Langbart replied not in the current budget atmosphere.

The session ended at 3:32 p.m.

Closed Session, March 7

Presentation and Discussion on Current Office Research and Annotation

Alex Poster discussed his work on the recent compilation, Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, Volume XLI, Global Issues II, outlining the central themes that emerged during his research and his observations regarding key topics in the volume. He then answered several research questions.