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The Archive Mourns the Loss of John Prados, Senior Fellow and One of Our Founders

December 1, 2022

The Archive is deeply saddened to announce the recent  passing of senior fellow Dr. John Prados, a celebrated military and intelligence historian and one of the founders of the Archive.

A prodigious author and researcher, John leaves behind a whole bookshelf of highly informed, well documented volumes covering military and intelligence history from the battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, through Dien Bien Phu, the entire Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, and so much more. Among his 27 books, several of them translated into French, a highlight was his biography of William Colby, which argues that the CIA director’s accommodating approach to congressional investigations in the 1970s of Agency wrongdoing actually saved the CIA.

John was a self-described “man of the 60s” who swam against many currents. He practically invented the title “independent scholar,” not least because in multiple periods of his life he earned his living less from his books and teaching than from designing war games, another indication of his wide-ranging interests, and reflecting his deep fascination with replaying history—games of strategy that reinforced his scholarly findings about agency and contingency. Things didn’t have to turn out the way they did. Human choice made a difference, while circumstances often ruled.

The Archive remembers John and his many contributions to transparency and national security scholarship in a special web posting to honor his life and work.

Critical Resources on the United States’ Nuclear Legacy in the Pacific Islands Amidst Calls for Climate Change Reparations

October 31, 2022

The United Nations Human Rights Council recently voted to adopt a resolution to address the human rights implications of the United States’ nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands. The October 7th resolution came just days after residents of the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, and Vanuatu, called for redress from colonial powers for the consequences of nuclear testing as their homes continue to be threatened by rising sea levels and nuclear waste deposits. The United States was among the nuclear powers to criticize the resolution, arguing that the Human Rights Council was not the appropriate forum to raise the issue, despite commissioning its own study to investigate the effects of rising sea levels on military assets in the Pacific Islands. 

The Archive is highlighting a selection of the most relevant primary sources from our Nuclear Vault and Environmental Diplomacy projects to provide essential, timely context for the reparations debate. Events covered in these sources include: 

  • The July 1946 Army-Navy joint task force that staged atomic tests in Bikini Atoll, which were the first tests since the 1945 bombings in Japan. Of the two nuclear weapons tests, the “Baker” test was the most catastrophic, contaminating nearby test ships with radioactive mist. The Archive’s July 22, 2016, posting Bikini A-Bomb Tests July 1946 sheds light on “Operation Crossroads,” and features a selection of key declassified documents, videos, and photographs on the radiological crisis. Even U.S. military personnel were apprehensive of the consequences of the tests, as seen in General Thomas Farrell’s December 1945 memorandum to Major General L. R. Groves, which advised against underwater atomic tests because it would involve “so many major hazards” including heavy contamination to the island and marine life.
  • The U.S. Navy’s removal of Bikinians from their native home. This event is well documented, as is the Bikinians’ impression that their resettlement would be temporary. Photos from the Archive’s 70th Anniversary of Operation Crossroads Atomic Tests in Bikini Atoll, July 1946 posting show Commodore Ben Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshall Islands, “consulting” with the Bikinians about their planned evacuation. This meeting was also captured in unedited video footage, which shows Bikinians “plainly unhappy with the situation,” and concludes with the islanders having their last church service on the atoll. In a message to the Pacific Fleet’s Commander, Wyatt remarked how “happy” the islanders were to be leaving their home. What’s not captured in this message is that the Bikinians felt they had “no choice but to obey the Americans,” writes Jonathon M. Weisgall in Operation Crossroads. Today, the islands remain uninhabitable due to subsequent nuclear testing in the atoll.
  • The 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test, which was the worst of the nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States between 1946 to 1958. In the Archive posting marking the 60th Anniversary of Castle BRAVO Nuclear Test, selected documents detail the horrifying effects of nuclear fallout on the Marshall Islands and Japan. Two 1995 memorandums from the Special Assistant to Secretary of State for Atomic Energy Matters indicate that an immediate return to Rongelap Atoll was impossible, first indicating that islanders could go back to the atoll only if they “restrict themselves to the southern islands” and “do not eat too many shellfish,” but then later backpedaling that it would still “take another year” before residents could return. Islanders returned to Rongelap in 1957, but the island remained seriously contaminated, forcing the islanders to leave in 1985. Several Japanese fishermen and the tuna catch that was on the Lucky Dragon were also contaminated. The posting also includes the 1954 petition by Marshall Islanders for an end to nuclear tests in the area, as well as internal U.S. government consideration of compensation to the Japanese government and the Marshall Islands for losses from nuclear testing. 

The United States has obscured the longstanding environmental impacts of its nuclear past. A 2019 LA Times review of government documents found that the U.S. government withheld key pieces of information about the nuclear storage dome located at Runit in the Marshall Islands ahead of the 1986 compact signed by the two countries. This treaty released the U.S. government from further liability—and is up for renegotiation in 2023.

While the United States and other nuclear powers appear cautious against opening the door to the rights-based litigation that the U.N. resolution may bring, they are aware of the security implications that come with rising seas and nuclear waste deposits in the Pacific Islands. In February 2018, the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program published a report on DoD military installations “most vulnerable to sea-level rise and associated impacts over the next 20 to 50 years” on Roi-Namur Island in Kwajelein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Not only will sea level rise and “annual wave-driven flooding” have a serious impact on freshwater availability, but the report also found that, if the impacts are not adequately addressed, “significant geopolitical issues could arise” as it becomes “necessary to abandon or relocate island nations.” How this will influence U.S. policy remains to be seen.

For more reading on the history of nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands, see Jonathan M. Weisgall’s 1994 book Operation Crossroads and Walter Pincus’s 2021 book Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. For a better understanding of the longstanding radiation effects in the Marshall Islands, see the 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study Background gamma radiation and soil activity measurements in the northern Marshall Islands.

Rachel Santarsiero is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the National Security Archive

The Archive’s CMC @ 60 Series Continues, FOIA Lawsuits Show Troubling Relationship between Retired U.S. Military Personnel and Authoritarian Regimes, and More: FRIMFORMSUM 10/20/2022

October 20, 2022
A handwritten draft of Ambassador Stevenson’s sign-off to Kennedy: “Blackmail and intimidation never; negotiation and sanity always.”

The Archive’s Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60 Series Continues

The National Security Archive’s Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60 series continues with two new recent  postings on 1) U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s warning to President Kennedy to abandon his plan to attack Cuba, and 2) the first meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Raul Castro.

Peter Kornbluh’s posting, How John F. Kennedy Sacrificed His Most Consequential Crisis Advisor, highlights a secret “eyes only” memorandum for John F. Kennedy, written 60 years ago from U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. In the memo, Stevenson admonished the president to abandon his initial plan to attack Cuba and to consider, instead, the diplomatic option of dismantling U.S. missile bases in Europe in return for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. The memorandum, which was a follow-up to a private meeting Kennedy and Stevenson had on October 16 about the unfolding missile crisis, concluded with Stevenson’s mantra for U.S. diplomacy in the face of Soviet provocation: “Blackmail and intimidation never; negotiation and sanity always.” Read the entire posting here

Svetlana Savranskaya’s posting, Getting to Know the Cubans: Khrushchev Meets the Castro Brothers, publishes – for the first time in any language – a translation of the first meeting between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro on July 18, 1960. The newly available transcript helps explain Khrushchev’s 1962 determination that defending Cuba from U.S. intervention would require a massive Soviet military base in Cuba, together with the deployment of nuclear weapons. Read the translation here

The Archive’s CMC team also continues the daily updates in our document series, all of which can be found on our website. Recent updates include images of JFK’s Oval Office meetings with Soviets and U.S. U-2 pilots, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric’s note, “Alternative Courses of Action on Cuba,” and much more. 

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FOIA Suit Wins Release of Records on Retired U.S. Military Personnel Working for Foreign Governments

The Washington Post’s seven-part Foreign Servants series uses records obtained from a two-year Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to show how much retired U.S. military personnel have profited from going on to work for foreign governments – including those with deplorable human rights records. The series was only possible thanks to a September ruling by U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta, who ruled in favor of the Post and found the government’s argument that releasing the records would violate the former military personnel’s  privacy “unconvincing”, resulting in the release of more than 4,000 pages of documents. Nate Jones, the Post’s FOIA coordinator and National Security Archive fellow, and investigative reporter Craig Whitlock, authored the remarkable series:

A complimentary FOIA lawsuit, filed by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), highlights the State Department’s role in granting permission to the former U.S. military personnel to work for foreign interests. POGO’s own investigation shows that over half of the State Department-approved waivers allowed work with authoritarian governments. Read more on POGO’s website

In Brief

  • The Washington Post’s Editorial Board recently chided District Judge James E. Boasberg for his October 4 ruling in the Archive’s FOIA lawsuit against the CIA for a key Cold War document (that was already declassified by the State Department in its Foreign Relations of the United States series that is now, unfortunately, offline). The Editorial Board notes, “The Perroots memo and the FRUS volume offer vital history lessons about the difficulty of crisis management in the nuclear age — lessons we could use in this perilous time.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis at 60, Irradiating Richard Nixon, and Much More from the National Security Archive: FRINFORMSUM 10/6/2022

October 6, 2022
CIA map, “Reconnaissance Objectives in Cuba”

The Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60

The Cuban Missile Crisis actually lasted 59 days, not the fabled “13 days” so familiar from books and Hollywood, according to a new collection recently announced by the National Security Archive. Soviet nuclear warheads arrived in Cuba on October 4, 1962, and did not leave until December 1. Those warheads were never detected by U.S. intelligence while they were in Cuba.

Marking these 59 days of the Crisis, and the 60th anniversary of the famous superpower confrontation, the Archive is posting images and documents from Soviet, American, and Cuban sources. The primary sources are drawn from the Archive’s unmatched collections on the Cuban Missile Crisis based on 30+ years of research and landmark conferences in Moscow and Havana that included Fidel Castro, Robert McNamara, Anatoly Gribkov, and other leading veterans of 1962.

On Tuesday, to mark the first day of the crisis, the Archive posted the recollections of the Soviet commander of nuclear forces in Cuba, whose account provides extraordinary details about the transportation, deployment and removal of the warheads and includes his warning that “Only madmen could unleash a war” by using tactical nuclear weapons.

Yesterday, on the second day of the 59-day Cuban Missile Crisis, the Archive published a CIA reconnaissance map of Cuba showing Soviet deployments and a target area with “unidentified missiles.”

Check out our new posting and follow us on Twitter @NSArchive for daily updates. 

The Archive also published a new briefing book on the Underwater Cuban Missile Crisis, which can be read on our website. 

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The Moscow Signals Declassified: ​​​​​​​Irradiating Richard Nixon

The Soviets exposed then Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat to ionizing radiation during his famous visit to Moscow in July 1959, according to declassified Secret Service records posted by the National Security Archive. Using detection devices known as Radiac Dosimeters, Nixon’s Secret Service detail measured significant levels of radiation in and around Nixon’s sleeping quarters at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador, during the first days of his trip. A few hours after the agents initiated what one called “a bluff” by loudly and coarsely denouncing the Soviets’ dirty tricks, the radiation levels “settled down.” According to the key Secret Service report on the incident, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson, and a senior member of Nixon’s entourage, Vice-Admiral Hyman Rickover, decided “not to make this information known to the Vice President.”

The Secret Service records were obtained by Archive Senior Analyst William Burr from a request to the Nixon Presidential Library in California. According to Burr, “this unusual and virtually unknown Cold War episode deserves more attention so the mysteries surrounding it can be resolved.”

The story of the Spaso House radiation incident remained secret for 17 years until the scandal over the Moscow Signal broke in the media in February 1976. A member of Nixon’s Secret Service team, James Golden, believed the 1959 episode was immediately relevant to the State Department’s investigation into the health effects of the microwave beams directed at the Embassy building. On April 28, 1976, he shared the secret history about the discovery of radiation at Spaso House with a State Department Soviet Desk official and medical officers. According to Golden, he was later told that he had been exposed to “massive dosages” of ionizing radiation emanating from an atomic battery that Soviet intelligence “used to power radio transmitters used for bugging purposes.”

This posting is part III of the Archive’s three-part series: “The Moscow Signals Declassified.” Part I, “Microwave Mysteries: Projects PANDORA and BIZARRE,” was posted on September 13; Part II, “Microwave Diplomacy, 1967-1977,” was posted on September 15. The Archive will post a larger special collection of supplementary documentation on the full history of the Moscow Signal in the near future.

Echeverría’s Legacy of “Co-opt and Control”

To mark this year’s anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the National Security Archive posted an essential collection of ten key U.S. documents on Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1922-2022), the former Mexican president later charged with genocide for his role in the Tlatelolco and Corpus Christi student massacres. 

U.S. documents depict Echeverría—a career politician in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)—as a man intent on crushing his enemies through manipulation and, if necessary, the unapologetic use of force. A CIA report from January 1971, published for the first time by the Archive, concluded that he “shares heavily in the blame” for the violence at Tlatelolco. An Embassy memo produced days after the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre described the Echeverría government’s “continuing effort to co-opt and control [the] student movement.” Other documents featured in this collection describe an acute “period of tensions” in U.S.-Mexican relations during his administration and the “psychological crisis” that gripped Mexico after his presidency, while records of his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon illuminate his immense ambitions in global leadership.

The documents are the result of years of FOIA requests and related archival research. Some are drawn from previous National Security Archive postings while several others are published here for the first time.

In Brief

The Public Document a Federal Judge and the CIA Don’t Want You to See: Federal judge James Boasberg this week supported a CIA claim that a public document about a famous nuclear war scare should be censored “to protect ‘intelligence activities’ or ‘intelligence sources or methods,’” despite the fact that his ruling and the CIA’s argument actually highlight the information and undermine any such protection. Read the rest on our website

Ongoing Trump Records Updates and Resources: 

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) recently issued a press release concerning the 15 boxes of presidential records retrieved from Mar-a-Lago this January. The press statement announced the release of records responsive to the numerous FOIA requests NARA has received for the records; the release consists of 65 pages of records, and announces the withholding of more than 1,500 pages. 

The released records can be read here

  • The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany report that former President Trump asked one of his lawyers, Alex Cannon, to affirm to NARA officials that he had returned all his presidential records to the agency. Cannon, who believed there might be more records at Mar-a-Lago, refused. 
  • NARA recently reported to the House Oversight Committee that it believes that records from the Trump administration are still missing, and that it will be consulting further with the Department of Justice for their return. Acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall also told the committee that NARA has been unable to retrieve federal records from “non-official electronic messaging accounts that were not copied or forwarded into their official electronic messaging accounts.” The Federal Records Act requires that such records be forwarded to official accounts within 20 days. 

Resources for the Trump Records Drama, NSArchive Pays Tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev, and More: FRINFORMSUM 9/1/2022

September 1, 2022

Resources for the Trump Mar-a-Lago Records Saga 

The extraordinary saga of former President Trump’s mishandling of government records, including classified national security information, continues to evolve. 

The Washington Post’s report on the Justice Department’s August 30th court filing notes that Trump and his team failed to return sensitive documents after both receiving a subpoena for them, and pledging that they’d conducted a “diligent search” for the records. The court filing itself states, “The classification levels ranged from CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET information, and certain documents included additional sensitive compartments that signify very limited distribution. In some instances, even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ attorneys conducting the review required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents.” 

Here are some of the most important developments and resources from the last two weeks of the evolving story:

DOJ August 30 court filing highlights

One of the highlights of the DOJ’s 36-page court filing can be found on page 9, wherein Trump’s custodian of records, Christina Bobb, provided the DOJ a signed, certified letter stating the following:

Based upon the information that has been provided to me, I am authorized to certify, on behalf of the Office of Donald J. Trump, the following: a. A diligent search was conducted of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Florida; b. This search was conducted after receipt of the subpoena, in order to locate any and all documents that are responsive to the subpoena; c. Any and all responsive documents accompany this certification; and d. No copy, written notation, or reproduction of any kind was retained as to any responsive document.

 I swear or affirm that the above statements are true and correct to the best of my knowledge. 

Another startling development appears on page 10. DOJ lawyers argue, “The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation.”

Yet another important takeaway is a redacted photograph of documents recovered, including those with Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information markings. Observers also spotted an “HCS” marking, indicating the system used to protect information gathered from human sources. For a recent example of why human sources are so valuable and vulnerable, see the October 2021 New York Times story, “Captured, Killed or Compromised: C.I.A. Admits to Losing Dozens of Informants”.

Trump took issue with the photo on Truth Social, seemingly most concerned that it made him look messy. He stated, “There seems to be confusion as to the ‘picture’ where documents were sloppily thrown on the floor and then released photographically for the world to see, as if that’s what the FBI found when they broke into my home. Wrong! They took them out of cartons and spread them around on the carpet, making it look like a big ‘find’ for them. They dropped them, not me – Very deceiving.”

The filing also opposes the appointment of a special master (an independent third party) to review the records, requested by President Trump, arguing it is an unnecessary delay tactic.

Trump has previously claimed that he had a verbal “standing order” to declassify the documents. The DOJ filing explicitly states, “neither counsel nor the custodian asserted that the former President had declassified the documents or asserted any claim of executive privilege.” (emphasis added) 

Trump Team August 31 Response

Trump’s legal team’s 19-page reply takes incredulous aim at the Presidential Records Act (even though the PRA is clear that presidential records belong to the public, not the president, and many of the documents at issue are clearly agency records). The court-filing states, “But the Government reads into the Presidential Records Act an enforcement provision that does not exist; the law exhorts a former President to interface with the Archivist to ensure the preservation of Presidential records, but it does not oblige the former President to take any particular steps with respect to those records.”

The reply has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to it, but the National Security Archive has long-argued the PRA needs more teeth, including eliminating the disposal provisions of the statute, instituting certain reporting requirements, and requiring the president to issue a records preservation policy at the beginning of each term that is reviewed by the Archivist of the United States. 

Additional Resources

  •  The search warrant and related memo, both released last week, can be read here and here, respectively. 
  •  The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman has a terrific timeline of the Mar-a-Lago records fiasco, read it here
  • Acting Archivist of the United States, Deborah Steidel Wall, recently published a NARA notice to all employees, Update on Trump Administration Presidential Records, in the agency’s FOIA reading room. She states that NARA found “more than 700 pages of records marked as classified national security information, up to the level of Top Secret and including Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program materials” among the 15 boxes recovered from Mar-a-Lago this January. This does not include the materials recovered by the FBI this August from the Palm Beach property.
  • Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told House Democrats in a letter last week that intelligence analysts were working with the Justice Department on a classification review of the materials taken from Mar-a-Lago, which will include an “assessment of the potential risk to national security that would result from the disclosure of the relevant documents.”
  • For an excellent overview of Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Special Access Programs (SAP) place in the classification universe, and the “unique fragility” of their associated sources and methods, read George Croner’s “A Damage Assessment of Trump’s ‘Declassification Defense’” in Just Security. Croner is the former principal litigation counsel at the National Security Agency, and his most important point is that any verbal standing declassification order would simply not suffice for these types of documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. Of course, the DOJ court filing above explicitly states that no such verbal order was made. This is a very worthwhile read, although I take issue with the hypothesis that if a verbal order had been given, that these documents would likely to be released in response to a FOIA request (after all, the sex of Conan the Dog was Glomared), so take any concerns that FOIA will reveal our top secrets with a grain of salt. 

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Is A New EO on Classified National Security Information in the Works?

Bryan Bender’s recent Politico piece, “White House launches new war on secrecy,” reveals that there is a new effort at the National Security Council to determine how to rein in the nation’s sprawling classification regime, focusing specifically on revising the current Executive Order on Classified National Security Information, EO 13526. John Powers, an NSC veteran who serves as the Associate Director for Classification Management for the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), will advise the effort – a good sign for transparency advocates. 

Specific steps that a coalition of open government advocates, including the National Security Archive, advise the NSC to take include: mandating the production of unclassified summaries of the President’s Daily Brief, and releasing all unclassified portions of Office of Legal Counsel opinions.  

While DNI Haines has testified publicly that overclassification is a national security concern, Powers and the NSC will have their work cut out for them. The intelligence community, led by the CIA and the FBI, will likely push back any attempt to cut down on overclassification.

In Memoriam: Mikhail Gorbachev 1931-2022

The National Security Archive mourns the passing of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, 1931-2022, first and last president of the Soviet Union, who ended the Cold War and enabled through his “glasnost” our work to open archives around the world.

Mr. Gorbachev deserves the credit, according to observers as disparate as Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, for the revolutionary changes in the 1980s that transformed the Soviet Union, brought down the Iron Curtain, reunited Germany, enabled Eastern Europeans to reclaim their countries, abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons, ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, settled regional conflicts, and put forward a model of international politics that denounced violence as any real solution to political problems.

Mr. Gorbachev personally helped the National Security Archive open the primary sources on all this tumultuous history, even when the documents did him no favors.  He also generously met with us on multiple occasions, answering our questions and contributing his recollections and retrospective analysis in a variety of international forums.

Read more, including our seminal Gorbachev documents, on our website.

Truth Commission Launches Declassified Database on Colombia’s Conflict and U.S. Role

As the U.S. contemplated a more aggressive drug war strategy in Colombia in the 1980s, top intelligence officials said success there would require “a bloody, expensive, and prolonged coercive effort” that, even then, was not likely to have an impact on the U.S. drug market, according to a declassified report recently published by the Colombia’s Truth Commission and the National Security Archive.

The 1983 Special National Intelligence Estimate, featured in the Washington Post, is among a massive trove of declassified U.S. records gathered and organized for the Commission by the Archive that was the focus of a special event in Bogotá to introduce the Truth Commission’s digital library to the academic community. Archive senior analyst Michael Evans joined Truth Commissioner Alejandro Valencia Villa and other distinguished panelists at Colombia’s National University to celebrate the launch of the platform and to share highlights from more than 15,000 previously classified documents on Colombia’s conflict.

In Brief

– Acting Archivist of the United States, Deborah Steidel Wall, has announced the appointment of the newest 20-member FOIA Federal Advisory Committee. Alex Howard from Demand Progress and Adam Marshall from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are among the new non-government representatives. Ginger Quintero-McCall may have (she can correct me if I’m wrong!) the enviable distinction of being the first member to be appointed both as a government member (2016-2018) and as a non-government member (2022-2024).

Pentagon Joins DHS In Destroying Potential January 6 Evidence, Calls Records Retention Schedules Into Question: FRINFORMSUM 8/4/2022

August 4, 2022
Excerpt from Joint Status report – American Oversight v DOD and Army

Pentagon and DHS Announce More Destroyed January 6 Phone Records

The Pentagon has joined the Department of Homeland Security in destroying potential evidence related to the January 6 Capitol attack. Open government organization American Oversight posted court records related to its FOIA lawsuit for DoD January 6 records on its website, and the records indicate that the Pentagon “wiped” government-issued phones for senior officials that were in charge of mobilizing the National Guard’s response to the insurrection. The Washington Post reports that the erasure impacts the phone records of numerous senior officials, including then-acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. 

The court records indicate that the erasure is in keeping with DoD and Army policy for employees who have left the agency. An investigation of the Pentagon’s records retention schedules will help verify this claim, which, if true, is an egregious oversight that may impact the January 6 committee’s investigation. It would also put further pressure on the National Archives and Records Administration to do a more thorough job vetting agency records retention schedules.

American Oversight has asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the destruction. 

**

The DoD news comes on the heels of new revelations into the extent of the destruction of phone records at the Department of Homeland Security. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) recently obtained internal agency documents showing that “Text messages for President Donald Trump’s acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf and acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli are missing for a key period leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.” The DHS Inspector General, Joseph V. Cuffari, was notified of the destruction in February and did not notify the January 6 Committee, did not press department leadership about the destruction, and did not attempt to recover the lost data. 

The destroyed messages from DHS’s most senior leadership adds to the list of the agency’s missing January 6 records, most notably the Secret Service’s destruction of agency text messages surrounding the attack shortly after the messages were requested by the January 6 Select Committee, allegedly during the course of an agency-wide phone reset and upgrade. 

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AQ Leader al-Zawahiri Killed in CIA Drone Strike

President Biden confirmed on August 1 that the United States successfully targeted al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who merged his al-Jihad organization with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, was one of the masterminds of 9/11. He was identified and targeted by the CIA while residing in the wealthy Kabul neighborhood of Shirpur, in a house owned by senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani (in a seemingly clear violation of the Doha Agreement), and in an area patrolled by the Haqqani Network. The strike comes a year after the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and raises questions about the potential re-emergence of Afghanistan as a terrorist safe haven. 

The Washington Post reports that the CIA was certain it had ascertained al-Zawahiri’s location by early July. President Biden convened a meeting in the Situation Room on July 1 to discuss options and logistics, and convened a final briefing on the strike on July 25. 

For more on the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda, consider reading any of the following from the Archive’s Afghanistan Project:

The National Security Act Turns 75

The National Security Archive recently published a compilation of key declassified US documents on the run-up to the enactment of the National Security Act, which was signed into law 75 years ago. The law’s passage marked a major restructuring of the US government’s military and intelligence apparatus in the years following World War II, and has revolutionized US policy making post-9/11. The documents in our latest posting show the run-up to the law’s enactment, the debates surrounding the unification of the military departments, and the establishment of three major national security organizations: the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the office of a civilian Secretary of Defense. This publication also sheds light on how the law, originally crafted with the intent of military and intelligence reorganization, evolved into something that would overhaul the Executive branch and establish the essential framework for foreign policy making during and after the Cold War.

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, spoke with NPR’s Greg Myre about the law’s birthday, focusing particularly on the creation of the CIA. Blanton notes that, “The great successes the CIA has had have been the way in which it reduced the possibility of confrontation in a nuclear age,” but that “the places where the CIA has gone wrong has been in its handling of agents, its covert operations, its paramilitary, which raised the possibilities of confrontation, raised the danger.”

If you’re curious to read more about the US Intelligence Community, visit the Archive’s Intelligence Documentation Project, which has won the release of thousands of previously classified records that describe and contextualize many facets of the IC’s history, organization, structure, mission and operations. 

In Brief

EPA Delays Plan to Sunset Online Archive: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would put plans to sunset its online Archive on hold until June 2023. During that time, the agency said it will “assess the use of archive content” and “continue to analyze, inventory and transition key content to our main website”.

In March of this year the EPA announced that it would wipe its site that contains “old news releases, policy changes, regulatory actions, and more,” on the grounds that it is no longer cost-effective and was never intended to be permanent. Open government and environmental advocates raised the alarm because, as The Verge’s Justine Calma reported, “The archive is the only comprehensive way that public information about agency policies, like fact sheets breaking down the impact of environmental legislation, and actions, like how the agency implements those laws, have been preserved…It also shows how the agency’s understanding of an issue, like climate change, has evolved. And when the Trump administration deleted information about climate change on the EPA’s website, much of it could still be found on the archive.”

DOJ Sues Ex-Trump Adviser Over Presidential Records: The Justice Department is suing ex-Trump aide Peter Navarro over his refusal to turn over presidential records. The suit, brought on behalf of the National Archives, alleges that Navarro used personal email to conduct government business and “is wrongfully retaining Presidential records that are the property of the United States, and which constitute part of the permanent historical record of the prior administration.”

DEA Says FOIA Requests Can No Longer Be Submitted Via Email, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 7/21/2022

July 21, 2022

DEA No Longer Accepting Emailed FOIA Requests

The Drug Enforcement Administration (a component of the Department of Justice) recently told the National Security Archive that it will no longer accept FOIA requests submitted by email. This wholly unnecessary move adds unacceptable administrative barriers to filing a FOIA request. To add insult to injury, the DEA also stated that all requests must be submitted through the agency’s FOIA portal, which requires users to create a Public Access Link (PAL) account. Frustratingly, PAL accounts require requesters to change their password every 30 days – a nuisance that, if not followed to the letter, can make it extraordinarily difficult for requesters to regain access to their account and documents.

Given how clunky the Archive has found PAL accounts to be, I tried to verify that this policy change was reflected in the DEA’s FOIA regulations (all agencies are required to publish their FOIA regulations on their website), but the DEA does not currently link to its (or the DOJ’s) FOIA regulations.

The DEA’s decision raises concerns beyond the utility of PAL accounts, including: 

  • Why should members of the public be required to register anywhere to file a FOIA request?
  • When will we see a true national FOIA portal as mandated in the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act as opposed to the disparate FOIA portals currently used across the government? And,
  • How does this trend of account-only access for filing FOIA requests impact members of the public who either do not have reliable internet access, and/or who are not tech savvy enough to navigate the portals? 

For the time being, requesters would be better off filing FOIA requests to the DEA through FOIA.gov rather than creating a PAL account, but the fact remains that requesters should be allowed to submit requests by any method that is the most convenient for them. Hopefully DEA’s parent agency will address this glaring problem – but we won’t hold our breath. 

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NARA Investigates Secret Service January 6 Text Destruction

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is investigating the Secret Service’s destruction of agency text messages surrounding the January 6 attack. The destruction of text messages from January 5 and January 6 took place shortly after the messages were requested by the January 6 Select Committee, and the destruction was revealed by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, in a recent letter to the committee (although the Washington Post reports the IG’s office learned of the destruction in February, but chose not to inform Congress). Cuffari also stated that DHS officials were delaying providing the IG’s office with the required documents by arguing the records first needed to be reviewed by DHS attorneys. For its part, the Secret Service claims the records were unintentionally deleted in mid-January during the course of an agency-wide phone reset and upgrade. 

NARA released a statement Tuesday saying that the Secret Service has 30 days to provide a report on how the materials were destroyed, and the January 6 Committee has issued a subpoena for answers in the matter. 

The Secret Service’s unauthorized destruction adds to a growing list of missing or destroyed information concerning the January 6 attack, including the infamous seven-and-a-half hour gap in Trump’s official call records. 

The egregious destruction inspired Ann Telnaes, Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, to re-imagine the famous picture of Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary who famously testified that she had inadvertently erased 18 and ½ minutes of a crucial Watergate tape when she stretched to answer her White House phone with her foot still on the transcription pedal. (The Archive’s annual Rosemary award singles out the worst performance in open government, and the Secret Service is currently a heavy favorite for next year’s award.)  

Long-Classified U.S. Estimates of Nuclear War Casualties During the Cold War Regularly Underestimated Deaths and Destruction 

US government analyses dating from the 1940s onward have provided civilian and military leaders with staggering estimates of the likely casualties that would result from a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, but the sheer scale of those projected fatalities kept the reports classified until after the end of the Cold War. 

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the decades-old question of potential casualties from a nuclear strike back to the forefront of public attention (even though averting a superpower conflict is a high White House priority), and calls for these estimates to be re-examined.

A recent posting from the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault contains almost two dozen of these high-level White House, State, Defense, CIA, and other estimates dating from the 1940s through the 1970s. Examples include the landmark Harman Report from 1949 which was the first to spell out (massive) casualty projections while also predicting that resorting to nuclear weapons would not force the Kremlin to capitulate. A 1964 report to JFK approximated 134 million American and 140 million Soviet deaths from a theoretical superpower nuclear exchange. Carter administration reports on the famous PRM-10 (assessing U.S. national strategies and capabilities) candidly admitted that a nuclear war could never have a “winner.” 

Read the documents for yourself on the Archive’s website.

In Brief

Colombia Truth Commission’s Final Report Bolstered by National Security Archive Documents

July 8, 2022

Last week the Colombia Truth Commission wrapped up three-and-a-half years of work with the launch of its June 28, 2022, report on the causes and consequences of Colombia’s conflict. The publication of the Commission’s findings and recommendations is an important step forward in guaranteeing the rights of victims and of Colombian society to know the truth about what happened, to build a foundation for coexistence among Colombians, and to ensure that such a conflict is never repeated. The Commission’s report makes sweeping recommendations about the role of Colombia’s security forces, denouncing the concept of the “internal enemy” and the systematic victimization of Colombia’s political left. The report also condemns decades of punitive counternarcotics programs backed — at times forcefully — by the U.S. and that the Commission says aggravated the conflict. 

Among the many sources consulted by the Commission in reaching its conclusions were thousands of declassified U.S. documents gathered and organized by Mike Evans, director of the Archive’s Colombia Project. Evans’ June 28, 2022, posting, “There is future if there is truth”: Colombia’s Truth Commission Launches Final Report, focuses on six key declassified documents, including a CIA operational report — normally outside the purview of FOIA— that reveals contemporaneous U.S. knowledge that the Colombian military was engaged in a persistent pattern of collaboration with paramilitary operations. The CIA report finds that much of the violence against “suspected leftists and communists” in Medellín and Urabá was the result of Colombian Army intelligence “B-2” detachments from the 4th and 10th brigades working in coordination with narcotraffickers and paramilitary groups.  The reporting officer said it was “unlikely” that such coordination took place “without the knowledge of the Fourth Brigade commander.” 

The posting also details U.S. links to Colombian narcotraffickers and paramilitary groups. One February 4, 1992, DEA cable shows the DEA mission in Bogotá reported potential threats against its personnel related to their relationship with Luis Meneses (“Ariel Otero”), the assassinated paramilitary leader in the Magdalena Medio. The posting also highlights high-level Defense Department records, including a July 2003 memo to Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, showing how the Pentagon’s metrics for success against Colombian insurgents may have contributed to the “false positives” phenomenon, whereby Colombian Army officers seeking performance bonuses murdered civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat. 

Evans’ work was featured in the June 28, 2022, New York Times article, Declassified documents highlight the U.s. role in Colombia’s conflict, and the July 2nd, 2022, El Spectador article, Los archivos secretos de Estados Unidos sobre Colombia.

For more Archive documents on Colombia, see the October 4, 2021, post, Declassified Documents Key to Judgment Against Colombian Paramilitary, the August 31, 2020, post “The Friends of “El Viejo”: Declassified Records Detail Suspected Paramilitary, Narco Ties of Former Colombian President Uribe, and the Colombia Project page.

Weekend Read: Documents from the Origin of ‘Nuclear Winter’ Theory, and the Environmental Impacts of Nuclear Fallout

June 17, 2022

Nuclear stockpiles are expected to grow over the coming decade, according to the most recent study from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The June 13, 2022, report cites a number of factors, including the war in Ukraine, behind the worrying trend. National Security Archive Analyst William Burr’s June 2, 2022, posting, Nuclear Winter: U.S. Government Thinking During the 1980s, both underscores some of the key reasons why stockpiles are expected to grow, including Moscow’s apocalyptic nuclear threats in Ukraine, and the impact it could have on the environment. Burr’s timely briefing book, with items both from the United States and the Soviet Union, revisits when scientists first began to question the impact of nuclear war on the environment, coining the term ‘nuclear winter’ for the total devastation that would ensue. 

The briefing book features declassified government and contractor reports from the 1980s on nuclear winter, a controversial Cold War theory on the extreme climatic impacts of nuclear warfare. Burr traces the concept back to when it was first publicized by a group of five scientists (including the late Carl Segan) in a 1983 article in Science magazine. The scientists argued that nuclear attacks on cities could have a“major impact on climate manifested by significant surface darkening over many weeks, subfreezing land temperatures persisting for up to several months, large perturbations in global circulation patterns, and dramatic changes in local weather and precipitation rates.” Burr notes how the concept quickly became politically charged – two of the scientists worked for NASA and faced institutional pressures not to present their work – and explains how, at the time, many details of the potentially devastating effects of a nuclear winter remained unclear. Key documents published in the posting include:

It is unclear whether the US is still studying the environmental impact of nuclear winter, Burr points out, but the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act did require an interagency study on the atmospheric effects of nuclear explosions, bringing the topic back onto the agenda. 

More reading on the subject from independent researchers includes a January 22, 2021, Nature article “Nuclear Nino Response Observed in Simulations of Nuclear War Scenarios”, an October 13, 2021, Science Daily article “Smoke from Nuclear War would Devastate Ozone Layer, Alter Climate”, and a March 9, 2022, Atlantic article on the subject, “On Top of Everything Else, Nuclear War Would be a Climate Problem.” 

SCOTUS Refusal to Hear Prepublication Review Case Highlights Need for the Director of National Intelligence to Update Prepublication Rules, and More: FRINFORMSUM 5/26/2022

May 26, 2022
DNI’s prepublication review instructions date from 2016, despite a 2017 Congressional mandate they update prepublication rules.

SCOTUS Will Not Hear Prepublication Review Case; DNI Has Not Yet Updated Prepublication Instructions Despite 2017 Congressional Mandate

The Supreme Court made the unfortunate decision not to hear a case arguing that the government’s prepublication review requirements violate the First Amendment rights of former national security officials. The prepublication review system requires former intelligence and military officials to submit any fiction or nonfiction writing that relates to their government work to government censors for review to ensure no government secrets are disclosed. The logic may be palatable in theory, but in practice, the prepublication review process often holds up or prevents the publication of unclassified material, information that is already publicly available, and information that embarrasses the government. 

The case SCOTUS refused to hear was initially brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the ACLU and challenged the entire prepublication review system in federal court. The plaintiffs in the case argued that the system, which was initially limited to a select group of CIA employees but is now a routine part of obtaining a security clearance, is “dysfunctional,” ambiguous, and restricts free speech and due-process rights. The process has frustrated numerous authors, including former Defense Secretary Mark Esper and former national security adviser John Bolton

In 2017 the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence mandated that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence come up with new guidelines to streamline the prepublication review system to make it more uniform across the government and more timely, and to issue the new policy rules by the end of the year. On November 20, 2018, the ODNI FOIA chief, Sally Nicholson, told Steve Aftergood in response to a FOIA request that “An IC-wide policy on prepublication review is being formulated and is forthcoming.” But none has materialized, and the prepublication review guidelines on the DNI website have not been updated since 2016.  

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Professor Uses NSArchive Documents in Pulitzer Prize-Nominated Poetry Collection

Professor and poet Mai Der Vang is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her poetry collection, “Yellow Rain,” which is inspired in part by declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive. The Archive documents concern allegations of the illegal use of chemical biological weapons in Laos in the 1970s. Professor Vang included the Archive’s records in her research, along with research on the CIA, State Department, and other agency websites, to give voice to the experience of Hmong refugees.

Grand Jury Investigation of  Classified Info at Mar-a-Lago Begins 

Federal prosecutors recently launched a grand jury investigation into whether classified White House materials found at Mar-a-Lago were mishandled. On February 7, 2022, the Washington Post reported that National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) officials had retrieved 15 boxes worth of presidential records from Mar-a-Lago – some of which contained classified information. The egregious violation prompted NARA to ask the DOJ to investigate and now, The New York Times reports that the Justice Department is examining the role former President Donald Trump and other White House officials had in the handling of the documents. The department issued a subpoena to NARA for the boxes and has requested interviews with former White House employees.

The Chernyaev Diary, 1982—”The run up to perestroika”

The National Security Archive marks what would have been Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyaev’s 101st birthday this week with the publication for the first time in English of his Diary for 1982. At the time, Chernyaev was deputy director of the International Department of the Central Committee responsible for the International Communist Movement (ICM). Within a few years he became a close adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev and a leading theorist in the era of perestroika and glasnost. 

After the Soviet collapse, Chernyaev transformed into one of the most important and reliable sources of historical information for Western observers about the Soviet system and the Kremlin’s Cold War. An invaluable contributor to international scholarship, including conferences and research conducted by the National Security Archive, he ultimately donated his diary – which Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Hoffman called “irreplaceable” and “one of the great internal records of the Gorbachev years” – to the Archive. Every year, this organization translates and posts another installment of this extraordinary chronicle. Read more about this year’s Diary on our website. 

In Brief

  • US Declassifies Intel on Russian Naval Blockade of Ukraine: The US has declassified intelligence showing Russia’s blockade of the Northwestern Black Sea, putting the global food supply at risk. The Intelligence Community’s ongoing commitment to declassifying information on Ukraine supports arguments that declassification of information that might technically meet the standards for declassification when there is a compelling reason to do so can promote US national security and America’s foreign policy objectives. 
  • Diario Militar Helps Bring New Trial: Twenty-three years ago on May 20, 1999, the National Security Archive published the “Diario Militar,” a detailed document also known as the “Death Squad Dossier” that was smuggled out of Guatemala. The unique document describes atrocities committed by the Guatemalan military during an 18-month period of the country’s protracted civil war and is still making an impact two decades later. On May 6, 2022, Guatemalan judge Magistrate Miguel Angel Galvez, using documentation from the “Diario Militar”, ruled that nine former military and police officers will stand trial for civil crimes committed during the war. Read more in our latest “Weekend Read.”
  • Bipartisan Condemnation of the Glomar Denial: Former Senator Mark Udall (D-Co.) and Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) co-authored a bipartisan op-ed for The Hill taking aim at the pernicious use of the Glomar denial. (A “Glomar” response is when an agency refuses to confirm or deny the existence of documents in response to a FOIA request because “the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified.”) The politicians note that, “The expansion of the Glomar loophole to circumvent FOIA threatens to render a law passed by Congress, and signed by a president, with the approval of the American people who elected them, utterly meaningless.” Read the op-ed here.   
  • ACUS Seeks Input on FOIA and Agency Legal Materials: The Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) has launched a new project to consider whether Congress should amend the FOIA and other statutes governing the disclosure of federal agency legal materials. A press release on their website notes, “ACUS is also soliciting public input on key questions related to the public availability of agency legal materials such as regulations, guidance documents, and adjudicative decisions. A request for information will be published in the Federal Register next week. The request is also available on ACUS’s website at www.acus.gov/research-projects/disclosure-agency-legal-materials. All interested persons are encouraged to submit views, data, and other information.”
  • New DNSA Set on Climate Change: The National Security Archive, along with our scholarly partners at ProQuest, is publishing a rich new set of documents on United States climate change diplomacy from the Reagan years through the Obama administration. The 2,440 document collection, U.S. Climate Change Diplomacy: From the Montreal Protocol to the Paris Agreement, 1981-2015, provides researchers an unparalleled compilation of primary-source material on an essential subject. Read more about the new collection on our blog.