Skip to content

State Department’s 1953 Iran FRUS Past Due: FRINFORMSUM 10/13/2016

October 13, 2016
Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, overthrown in the 1953 coup.

Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, overthrown in the 1953 coup.

It is past time for the State Department to release its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume on the 1953 Iran Coup. Malcolm Byrne – the National Security Archive’s Deputy Director and Iran Project Director – argues in a recent Politico article that the State Department’s decision to delay the release of the “long-overdue” volume over stated concerns that it would prompt a harsh response from Tehran is misguided. Byrne notes that “The problem with this rationale is that, so many years later, the administration’s anxieties over lasting damage coming from the Islamic Republic have simply not been supported by experience.”

The history of the 1953 Iran FRUS is a dramatic one. The State Department first published a 1989 volume on the coup that failed to mention the CIA’s involvement, an omission that scholars called a “fraud” and received such intense criticism that Congress passed a 1991 statute requiring the FRUS to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary history of U.S. foreign relations. The outrage and legislation prompted the State Department Historian’s Office to prepare a make-up volume, which, as Byrne notes, “it painstakingly compiled several years ago and expected to publish in 2013. In other words, as the Department’s own historical advisory committee noted in its latest annual report, it is finished and ready to go. But it has yet to appear.”

Rationale for withholding the history has evolved over the years – ranging from claims of needing to shield sources and methods to protecting the well-known-secret of British involvement in the coup, and obfuscation persists even though CIA documents on the United States’ role in the controversial operation were released to the National Security Archive in 2013 through the FOIA.

Byrne argues that instead of clinging to secrecy, the State Department should release the volume, giving a “boost to the president’s lofty commitment to greater openness,” and providing the “American people access to a chapter of their recent history they have every right to see” in the process.


National Security Council, Minutes of the National Security Planning Group Meeting, “Subject: US-Soviet Relations,” June 12, 1986. [Secret]

On June 12, 1986, President Reagan told attendees of the National Security Planning Group meeting that “we do not want a first-strike capability, but the Soviets probably will not believe us.” Reagan said this made the presence of international observers even more important and argued that the US should ultimately “[a]gree to share SDI with the world.” This remarkable declassified document is one of 32 recently posted by the Archive that, collectively, reveal that many US officials treated Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s radical proposal in January 1986 to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2000 as pure propaganda, though it was welcomed by President Reagan. The records show serious internal US debates, consultations with allies, and support by the president that ultimately helped produce the historic Reykjavik summit 30 years ago. See the posting – and the declassified documents – here, and keep an eye out for transcripts covering all of the bilateral summits from 1985 to 1991 that will appear next month in the new book, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush: Conversations that Ended the Cold War.

A new State Department Inspector General report on classification activity is a damper on earlier Information Security Oversight Office reports that tout sharply declining number of original declassification decisions. ISOO reports on agency classification decisions rely on figures that “were understood to be estimates” but have nonetheless seen the total number of original classification decisions drop dramatically from 258,633 in 2005 to 53,425 in 2015. The new State Department report says, however, that the numbers are not estimates – they are “inaccurate and incorrect” and that classification totals reported to ISOO “will not accurately represent all of the Department’s classification decisions because not all decisions are being identified or sampled as part of the Department’s self-inspection program.” Steve Aftergood drew attention to the report on his blog earlier this week, quoting ISOO director William Cira as being unsurprised and “not especially troubled” by the IG report. Cira notes that while the extrapolation method used to calculate the figures is crude, it “has been consistently applied across many agencies for a very long time,” so while it may not be accurate it may still reliably indicate a downward trend in classification decisions. Aftergood notes, “without real quantitative and qualitative clarity, effective management of agency classification activity will be beyond reach.”


Frank Sturgis, image via Wikimedia Commons.

The FBI is asking for nearly $3,000 for its 75,000-page file on Watergate burglar (and alleged CIA asset) Frank Sturgis, so MuckRock is organizing a Crowdfund to help get the historically significant documents released. As Michael Best writes for MuckRock, “Despite numerous denials from the CIA and assertions that Frank Sturgis was never employed by the Agency, a pair of documents have surfaced that clearly contradict this and show the Justice Department was aware of it. We won’t know the full extent of the file – which is more than four times as long as the 17,000 page FBI file on Watergate – until it’s released, but there are a number of things that are certain to be in it and which have very little official documentation available to the public.”

Thirty years ago, a Soviet nuclear submarine with about 30 nuclear warheads on board sank off U.S. shores north of Bermuda as Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were preparing for their historic summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. But instead of Chernobyl-style denials, the Soviet government reached out to the Americans, issued a public statement, and even received offers of help from Washington, according to the never-before-published transcript of that day’s Politburo session, posted recently by the National Security Archive. As the Archive’s Russian Programs Director Svetlana Savranskaya writes, “This was the first time the Soviets had ever delivered a public information report immediately after an accident of this type and did not view U.S. actions in the area as a provocation. Communications between the two superpowers were therefore very constructive.  Having learned how damaging to the Soviet image the secrecy surrounding the Chernobyl accident was, Gorbachev decided to truly deploy glasnost in this case.  In addition to the shadow of Chernobyl, the conduct of both sides, along with the tone of the Politburo discussion, were clearly influenced by preparations for the upcoming summit, which both leaders considered a top priority.”

On the 40th anniversary of the first and only mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere, the National Security Archive called on the Obama Administration to declassify all remaining intelligence records on Luis Posada Carriles to shed light on his activities, provide historical evidence for his victims, and make a gesture of declassified diplomacy towards Cuba. Toward that goal, the Archive reposted documents implicating Posada Carriles in that terrorist crime and identified still secret records to be declassified.

This week’s Cyber Vault update includes a March 2005 report from Sandia National Labs that offers some useful warnings to anyone doing penetration testing of industrial control systems: the tests themselves could not only cause property damage or wreak minor havoc with larger systems, they could even risk death. In one “real example” the report provides, a tester was almost struck by an inadvertently activated robotic arm:

While a ping sweep was being performed on an active SCADA network that controlled 9-foot robotic arms, it was noticed that one arm became active and swung around 180 degrees. The controller for the arm was in standby mode before the ping sweep was initiated. Luckily, the person in the room was outside the reach of the arm.

Other updates from this week’s Cyber Vault relate to computer security dating all the way back to the late 1990s and early 2000s – including a lengthy, 116-page U.S. Space Command internal Concept of Operations for Computer Network Defense, an early approach to an ongoing problem in our era.

Join the National Security Archive’s Nate Jones on October 20th at 3:00pm at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for his special presentation on his new book Able Archer 83: The Secret History, with commentary by Archive director Tom Blanton. Believing Able Archer 83 could have been an actual attack, the Soviets had actively prepared for a surprise missile attack from NATO. The seriousness of this close scrape with Armageddon was declassified last October when the U.S. government released a ninety-four-page presidential analysis of Able Archer that the National Security Archive had spent over a decade attempting to free. Able Archer 83 is based upon more than a thousand pages of declassified documents that Nate Jones, Director of the National Security Archive’s FOIA project, has pried loose from U.S. government agencies, British archives, as well as formerly classified Soviet Politburo and KGB files, vividly recreating the atmosphere that nearly unleashed nuclear war. We hope to see you there! To RSVP for this event, please go here.

ramos 6This week’s #TBT document pick is chosen with today’s National League Division Series game 5 between the Washington Nationals and the LA Dodgers in mind – the winner of which will face the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. This week’s pick is an April 2016 blog post by the Archive’s resident Nats enthusiast/expert Nate Jones on the Wilson Ramos 2012 kidnapping – declassified. Go Nats!

Want to stay on top of the latest FOIA news? Click here to sign up for our weekly FRINFORMSUM email newsletter.

Happy FOIA-ing!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: