U.S. State Archives and Government Information Secrecy: Access and Historical Research

annual meeting sessionSince at least the Reagan administration, Social Security has been likened to the “third rail” in American politics: the issue no one will touch for fear of being singed. The metaphor was invoked yesterday by Carl Ashley—a historian at the Department of State and a panelist at AHA session 31, “U.S. State Archives and Government Information Secrecy”—to capture the feeling in his office about a very different issue: WikiLeaks. His comparison drew a chuckle but little else: despite the panel’s suggestive name, and the presence of current and former members of the CIA, the mood in the room was mellow and agreeable.

Everyone seemed to agree, for instance, with John Fitzpatrick (formerly of the CIA; now at the National Archives), that finding the right balance between safeguarding and sharing sensitive government documents is the key to a functional but reasonably transparent system. The Archives’ mission, as Fitzpatrick sees it, is to ensure citizens’ (including, happily, historians’) access to information and records, and he gave an approving nod to the Obama administration’s 2009 Open Government Directive, which “makes explicit that information is not to be classified forever; that the bulk be automatically declassified after 25 years.” This does not make Fitzpatrick a Julian Assange. He, like all of his fellow panelists, regards secrecy as a necessary component of national security, and believes that “classified documents require a judicious eye.” Asked by the panel’s substitute chair, Fredrik Logevall of Cornell, if the government now had that crucial balance right, Fitzpatrick was thoughtful: “Well, no,” he answered, “we’re still sharing too little,” but “we’ve got the vocabulary right.”

This year marks the 150th anniversary of FRUS, the Foreign Relations of the United States series that has, since 1861 (and now comprising over 400 volumes), presented the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy decisions. The series elicited an enormous amount of affection in the room yesterday. Professor Logevall referenced the countless students who had confided to him their decision to study Foreign Relations because of FRUS, as well as the series’ importance to his own work on the Vietnam War. Even panelist Michael Warner of the U.S. Cyber Command seemed partial to print, and after Logevall asked about exciting digital possibilities, Carl Ashley described a 20th century “littered with technologies that were going to change everything,” but that “since the Dead Sea Scrolls,” the way to make an idea “stick around” is to put pen to paper.

Despite that preference for print, several questioners were referred to websites for help with research of various kinds. Peter S. Usowski, of the Center for the Study of Intelligence at the CIA, teased the audience about our inability to visit the allegedly thrilling CIA Museum: the best museum, according to Usowski, “that people can’t see.” But anyone with an Internet connection can visit the virtual version at https://www.cia.gov/. And the State Department now has a mobile app for those of us whose craving for a foreign policy fix requires something a little more immediate than the technology that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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