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ARCHIVES  March 2006, Week 1

ARCHIVES March 2006, Week 1

Subject:

NARA reclassification: Flashback to 2001 (H-Diplo on NARA, declassification, etc.)

From:

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Reply-To:

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Date:

Fri, 3 Mar 2006 12:36:30 -0500

Content-Type:

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Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (114 lines)

I'm very interested to see the extent to which NARA is able to speak 
candidly about the situation involving records declassification and 
reclassification.  In 2001, I ended up being the sole defender of the 
National Archives in a debate among historians on H-Net's H-Diplo List. 
  (Yes, me, who was once labelled as part of a group of "disgruntled 
archivists" during Don Wilson's tenure as Archivist, speaking out in 
defense of  NARA, LOL.)  At the time, my sister Eva still was alive and 
employed at NARA's Declassification division.
For those of you who are following the NARA Declass story, here are a 
couple of extracts from the H-Diplo postings:

"From: Jeffrey Kimball <[log in to unmask]>
List Editor: "H-DIPLO [Johnstone]" <[log in to unmask]>
Author's Subject: State Department Lot Files
Date Written: Tue, 17 Apr 2001 09:41:00 -0400
Date Posted: Tue, 17 Apr 2001 09:41:00 -0400

On April 11 the National Security Archive (NSA) posted on its web site 
(http://www.nsarchive.org) a list of unprocessed U.S. State Department 
lot files, which are in the custody of the National Archives and 
Records Administration (NARA) but unavailable for research. Lot files 
are among the most important sources for research on the history of 
post-World War II U.S. foreign relations. During the mid-1990s the 
State Department released what NSA described as a "plethora" of lot 
files, but in the last few years, as NSA explains, "progress in 
releasing lot files has slowed considerably." The fundamental problem 
lies not with the State Department but with NARA, which has 
responsibility for the final processing of lot files but has reduced 
the number of security-cleared staff assigned to this task.

Diplomatic historians who are concerned about this matter can find a 
fuller description of the problem and the list of unprocessed lot files 
at NSA's web site. Since there is a need to put diplomatic pressure on 
NARA to assign more staff to these collections, diplomatic historians 
may also want to consider calling or writing NARA about their concerns:
NARA, 8601 Adelphi Rd., College Park, Maryland 20740-6001.

Jeffrey Kimball"

This led to a lively debate among Warren Kimball, Jeffrey Kimball, 
Hayden Peake, and me. For example, I wrote in part:

"From: Maarja Krusten <[log in to unmask]>
List Editor: "H-DIPLO [Johnstone]" <[log in to unmask]>
Author's Subject: NARA's critics (Krusten)
Date Written: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 11:59:11 -0400
Date Posted: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 11:59:11 -0400

Warren Kimball writes that "as an organization and a bureaucracy, and 
despite the best and courageous efforts of some individuals within NARA 
-- is too weak, too timid, too unimaginative, too lacking in purpose 
and commitment, too hidebound and procedural, to be an effective force 
for declassification." He asserts that "It is definitely not committed 
to declassification of those records. Even when other agencies provide 
declassification guidelines for NARA personnel to use, timidity and 
over-caution prevail. NARA routinely refers "unclear" issues back to 
the agency with equity in the information, lest declassification upset 
another agency, something NARA tries to avoid at all cost."

Is this a fair assessment? Having worked at the National Archives and 
still having many friends at NARA, I know that it is not. To understand 
NARA's position, you have to look at where it stands in relation . . . 
to other federal agencies.

Warren Kimball supports creation of a new declassification agency along 
the lines suggested by former Senator Pat Moynihan. But it is not the 
guidelines and the NARA officials and employees that are the problem.  
Instead, it is the lack of support within the rest of government for 
declassification that has hindered NARA. That being the case, why would 
this not also hinder the new agency Kimball has in mind? Wouldn't the 
new agency be as affected by the Kyl and Lott amendments as NARA 
currently would appear to be?

Before attacking NARA as an ineffective force for declassification, 
scholars need to recognize that the National Archives is not 
autonomous; in fact, there is no mythical, totally independent 
"[fourth] branch" of government that can be totally committed to 
openness and public accountability. But many critics act instead as if 
there is some kind of firewall around the agency which protects it from 
pressure from other government entities. There is no such firewall. To 
be useful, any criticism of NARA must take into account all the sources 
of pressure on the agency and look for ways to protect it, not tear 
down the agency.

Who is going to speak out on NARA's behalf? Obviously, as with every 
federal agency, management counts on NARA's employees to be team 
players and to submit to message discipline. Sometimes the message is 
imposed from outside NARA, from the White House, from the Department of 
Justice, from other agencies that have prevailed in access battles. 
Remember, 'the government speaks with one voice,' regardless of 
internal debates. But if employees do speak out about perceived 
problems, it is all too easy to dismiss them as 'disgruntled 
archivists' as was the case with some of the working staff who 
testified in the Nixon public access litigation in 1992. If employees 
are limited in what they can do, that leaves NARA's customers as the 
best advocates for its mission.

Yet it is my experience that few scholars or academics bother to learn 
how the Archives really works or what the sources of pressure are on 
the Archives. Lack of information and understanding substantially 
weakens their ability to assist NARA in carrying out its mission."

A posting from the Archives & Archivists LISTSERV List sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, www.archivists.org.
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