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ARCHIVES Home

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ARCHIVES  April 2006, Week 3

ARCHIVES April 2006, Week 3

Subject:

Re: Reclassification of letters at NARA

From:

Peter Hirtle <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Peter Hirtle <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 20 Apr 2006 05:41:40 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (122 lines)

I have been thinking quite a bit about Richard Cox's charge to the 
profession to care about implications of the reclassification program 
at NARA.  There is, of course, no more articulate analyst than 
Richarc of the political importance of archives, and no one who has 
done more to bring this issue to the forefront of American archival 
thought.  I also have long admired Richard's deep commitment to the 
maintenance of a strong, vibrant, and independent national archives.

In looking at Richard's recent postings, though, I am not sure I 
agree with the practical steps he suggests for carrying this out.  We 
can quibble over whether the language in the SAA statement could have 
been made stronger; I actually think it is actually a pretty good 
statement of the archival principles (many of which we have learned 
from Richard) that are at issue in the case.

The heart of Richard's call for action seems to be the 
following:  "My greatest concern is that SAA, while urging NARA to 
continue to reform and strengthen its role in such secret Memoranda 
of Understanding, does not call for an independent investigatory 
group to examine what has occurred."  Earlier Richard wrote: "I urge 
all archivists to write to the Society of American Archivists to 
demand that our professional association create an independent body 
to look into what is going on in this case, as well as reconsider how 
NARA can be strengthened as an archival agency in this era of growing 
government secrecy."

Three observations:

1.  The National Coalition for History, on whose governing Board SAA 
sits, has called for Congressional oversight hearings on NARA.  Such 
hearings would certainly be the best way to learn more about, and 
testify on behalf, of operations at NARA.
2.  According to the National Security Archive, the ISOO audit of the 
current reclassification matter will be released on 26 April.  Any 
community action now would be premature; we should wait and see if 
the audit addresses the key issues.
3.  Again, according to the NSA, "Mr. Weinstein has asked the 
recently constituted Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) to 
independently assess the reclassification controversy. The PIDB 
reportedly will hold open hearings on the reclassification activities 
on May 9, 2006."

With these quasi-independent investigations proposed or under way, I 
am not sure that there is an effective place for another outside 
investigation, such as the SAA might be able to lead.  For example, 
as Maarja pointed out, we seem to be getting into a "he said - he 
said" argument between Michael Kurtz and John Carlin over whether the 
latter had seen and approved the CIA memorandum signed off on by the 
former.  It would seem to me that a group could only learn about the 
inner workings of NARA and the motivations for the reclassification 
memo, if that group had the blessing of NARA - or had something close 
to subpoena power.  For the time being, it would seem appropriate to 
accept at face value what the NSA has called "Mr. Weinstein's 
commitment to resolve one of the most controversial episodes in 
NARA's twenty-year history as an independent agency" and await the 
results of the internal investigations.

 From a historical perspective, I am not aware of any similar 
investigation of a national archival agency by an outside body.  The 
"Joint AHA-OAH Ad Hoc Committee to Investigate the Charges Against 
the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library" comes immediately to mind, but my 
recollection is that the effort was a mix success.  I haven't 
followed the Heiner Affair in Australia closely, but again my sense 
is that the ASA commented from a distance (much as SAA has done), 
rather than conducted an internal investigation on its own.  Please 
correct me if I am wrong.

Having said all this, I am still concerned about the archival 
principles at issue in this controversy.  You can't help wonder why 
good, decent, well-meaning archivists such as Michael Kurtz found 
themselves in a situation where they were signing classified 
memoranda of understanding.  My guess is that they were doing the 
same sort of balancing act that all archivists must do when it comes 
to donations.  We sometimes accept a donation with an inappropriate 
restriction in the deed of gift in the belief that in doing so, we 
are ensuring the preservation of a record that might otherwise be 
lost - and we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that 
eventually the records will be opened.  I suspect that some at NARA 
felt that if they were not accommodating towards the CIA and the USAF 
in what is after all a Congressionally-mandate re-review process, 
those agencies might be less willing to turn over historical records 
to NARA.  My impression is that similar sentiments drive NARA's 
support of classification review by agencies prior to automatic 
declassification.  Supporting agencies in their desire to keep 
material that should remain classified out of the automatic 
declassification chain may lead to more agency willingness to turn 
over material to NARA - and less lobbying to short-circuit automatic 
declassification.  In  a perfect world, the Archivist would have the 
authority to demand that agencies turn over all historical files to 
the Archives, but I am not predicting a perfect world any time soon.

So to me, the bottom line is whether we as archivists work with 
donors to meet their concerns - and maybe even reclassify some 
records that had been mistakenly classified, and maybe even acquiesce 
in an outside agency's decision to classify our agreement - if it 
gets more records into the archives.  Or do we take a more principled 
position - and watch records be destroyed in the agency, out of fear 
that they won't be properly protected in the Archives?

Peter B. Hirtle
IRIS Technology Strategist and
   CUL Intellectual Property Officer
Instruction, Research, and Information Services Division
Cornell University Library
309 Uris Library
Ithaca, NY  14853
[log in to unmask]
607/255-4033 (ph)
607/255-7922 (fax)

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