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Happy International Right to Know Day (Tomorrow)! The Archive Celebrates with a Look Back at this Year’s Transparency Highs and Lows

September 27, 2013

Revelations of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance programs, which many feel go beyond acceptable levels of tacitly understood surveillance practices, have brought much-needed attention to excessive government secrecy. Tomorrow’s International Right to Know Day celebrations are a timely opportunity to discuss not only why unnecessary secrecy is harmful, but also how a small organization like the Archive, through a lot of hard work by Archivists and agency FOIA officers, can utilize transparency measures to advance scholarship and accountability both in the US and abroad.

The CIA's declassified map of Groom Lake/Area 51.

The CIA’s declassified map of Groom Lake/Area 51.

This year has seen some remarkable government disclosures, including the first official acknowledgment of government operations at Area 51. Archivist Jeff Richelson obtained the formerly classified CIA history that not only acknowledges Area 51, but also provides important details of the agency’s secret U-2 spy plane program, through a FOIA request. However, the question remains why the government kept information on the well-researched aerial reconnaissance program secret for so long in the first place.

A similar question can be asked of the CIA’s recent confirmation that it was involved in the 1953 coup overthrowing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. The event was a watershed moment in Iranian history, “contributing to the anti-Americanism that accompanied the Shah’s ouster in early 1979, even influencing the Iranians who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran later that year,” and is a factor in Iran’s evolving diplomatic stance towards the US today. While it took six decades for the U.S. intelligence community to confirm common knowledge that it was behind the controversial overthrow, the CIA disclosure is both an important contribution to researchers and a promising sign.

Reagan and Able Archer 83 informant, Oleg Gordievsky

Reagan and Able Archer 83 informant, Oleg Gordievsky

In another significant contribution to Cold War scholarship, the National Security Archive recently posted online the largest collection of documents available about the 1983 NATO nuclear-release exercise, Able Archer 83. These documents are the result of a series of targeted FOIA requests to the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of State and more, and were posted in an effort to infuse much needed information into the “echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis” about one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. Thanks to hard work by requesters and diligent agency FOIA officers, the disclosed documents have added significant insight into the “last paroxysm of the Cold War.”

Archivist Kate Doyle testifies (photo credit: Saul Martinez).

Archivist Kate Doyle (photo credit: Saul Martinez).

Access to information is critical not only for the advancement of scholarship; it is also essential for the advancement of human rights. Government records provide important primary-source evidence in human rights trials and insight into international decision-making on genocide intervention policies. To this end, this year Archivist Kate Doyle testified as an expert witness in the trial of Col. Héctor Bol de la Cruz, the former Guatemala National Police director, and his subordinate, Jorge Alberto Gómez López, for the 1984 disappearance of student and labor leader Edgar Fernando García. Doyle was asked to analyze declassified U.S. documents relevant to the case that were obtained by the Archive thanks to a series of FOIA requests, and were important in the conviction of the “intellectual authors” of forced disappearances throughout Guatemala. Doyle also provided authenticated declassified US and Guatemalan documents in the trial of former Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The declassified documents were key evidence for the prosecution in the landmark trial.

The Department of State's new FOIA site.

The Department of State’s new FOIA site.

Of course, the Archive hasn’t been able to succeed in getting these important documents declassified without the great work of FOIA officers throughout the federal government. The Department of State’s new FOIA website, launched earlier this year, is indicative of how much effort many agencies exert to improve the public’s FOIA experience. The site is sleek, informative, user-friendly, and its new virtual reading room search proudly boasts a total of over 80,000 searchable documents. State’s new FOIA site, which prominently displays its agency FOIA regulations, FOIA reports, and other helpful links on the splash page, shows the site is clearly designed with the requester in mind and that the agency prioritizes its FOIA processes.

While there have been great advancements by FOIA offices throughout the federal government, there have also been further setbacks due to problems that have been allowed to linger, growing worse through inaction; namely outdated agency FOIA regulations and an ineffective National Declassification Center (NDC).

Archive Director Tom Blanton shows the Senate Judiciary Committee just how outdated many agency FOIA regs are during his testimony.

Archive Director Tom Blanton shows the Senate Judiciary Committee just how outdated many agency FOIA regs are during his testimony.

The Archive’s latest Audit on agency FOIA regulations found that agency regulations are still largely outdated, and consequently still undermine openness. Archive Director Tom Blanton testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year and corrected some of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy’s “pinocchio assertions” of improved FOIA performance, and urged the committee to take advantage of Sunshine Week and compel agencies to fully comply with the FOIA.

Another area where problems have been allowed to compound is the National Declassification Center (NDC), which recently released its latest bi-annual report. President Obama created the NDC on December 29, 2009, and tasked it to review the nearly 400 million-page backlog of historic documents at the National Archives (NARA) for declassification by the end of this year. The report talks at length about “assessing” records and what stage of the review process the documents are in, and in turn counts these incremental steps as successes. However, the NDC’s mandate is to declassify records, not to review records for yet further review. Reading the report closely reveals that just 71.5 million pages of the total backlog (20 percent) have been released to the public. The remaining 80% of documents have been either reviewed and denied declassification –sometimes denied in full for containing as little as one classified word– or remain unreviewed entirely. It is clear the “greatest challenge” to declassifying the remaining pages is a process known as the Kyl-Lott review, requiring torturous reviews and re-reviews that prevent the documents from reaching the public – despite the President’s mandate.

These snapshots of this year’s highs and lows are indicative of an open government community and agency FOIA officers that are working hard to improve the FOIA process and uphold open government principles despite some serious hurdles. Here’s wishing everyone a Happy International Right to Know Day! To celebrate, get informed, promote awareness, read a declassified document or two, or file a few FOIA requests of your own!

One Comment
  1. Emily Willard permalink
    September 30, 2013 9:28 am

    excellent review! thanks for putting this together, and happy belated right to know day!

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