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State Department Makes FOIA Reading Room Less User-Friendly: FRINFORMSUM 2/7/2019

February 7, 2019

The State Department’s old FOIA reading room on top, with searchable and sortable meta filters, and the new, non-sortable version on the bottom.

State Dept. Worsens FOIA Reading Room

The Department of State has inexplicably made its FOIA reading room significantly less user-friendly. The previous version allowed researchers to sort the reading room’s tens of thousands of documents by date or title, among other filters, or search through curated collections. The current iteration has no such features and the documents are now unsortable. The move is a frustrating head-scratcher from an agency that – until recently – had one of the best examples of the kind of FOIA reading room that is required by 2007 FOIA amendments. The change shows, as Alex Howard points out on Twitter, “how technical changes to searchability can degrade public access & impeding the public’s rights to know.”

New NDC Director Announced

The National Declassification Center has a new director. The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, announced that William P. Fischer will replace founding director Sheryl Shenberger, who retired early last year. Fischer comes to the NDC from the State Department, where he “led major Department projects including declassification reviews under the direction of the National Security Council such as the Argentina Declassification Review and John F. Kennedy Act initiative.”

The announcement is significant, particularly for historians. The National Declassification Center’s attitude towards releasing historic records – whether it chooses to embrace automatic declassification and end the wasteful practice of multiple equity re-reviews before historic documents are released to the public or whether it continues with the time consuming and inefficient status quo – will determine whether the Center lives up to its mandate to streamline the declassification process. Here’s hoping Fischer doesn’t bring the State Department’s new and un-improved FOIA reading room attitude to the NDC.

What the CIA Tells Congress (Or Doesn’t) about Covert Operations: The Barr/Cheney/Bush Turning Point for CIA Notifications to the Senate

Attorney-General nominee William P. Barr figured prominently in arguments to limit CIA responsibility to provide notification to Congress about covert actions during the 1980s, according to a review of declassified materials published today by the National Security Archive. As the Iran-Contra scandal played out, Barr, who held senior posts at the Justice Department, provisionally supported the idea of the president’s “virtually unfettered discretion” in foreign policy and downplayed Congress’s power of the purse, asserting it was “by no means limitless.”

The issue of notification of Congress about imminent clandestine activities was at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal when President Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William Casey specifically ordered that lawmakers be kept in the dark about the infamous, covert arms-for-hostages deals with Iran.

Barr was by no means alone in pushing these views, the documents show. Other notable proponents during the Iran-Contra aftermath included then-Congressman Dick Cheney and John R. Bolton, who was also at the Justice Department. After Cheney became vice president he continued to press for extraordinarily broad Executive Branch authority, advising then-President George H. W. Bush to veto the Senate’s intelligence appropriations bill on the grounds it “attacked” presidential prerogatives – resulting in the only known such veto since the CIA’s creation.

FOIA and You: Tips, Tricks, and War Stories

Will you be in the DC area on February 13? If so, join the Archive’s Nate Jones, former ISOO director William Leonard, BuzzFeed News’ Jason Leopold, and others discuss the state of FOIA, tricks to crafting the most successful requests possible, and hear some FOIA “war stories” at CATO’s “FOIA and You” seminar. There will be a livestream available for those who can’t attend in person.

U.S. Ambassadors Dean and Raphel warned Washington unconditional support to Pakistan and fundamentalist factions of mujahedin was destabilizing the region

A New Phase in the Great Game: U.S., Soviets, India, Pakistan vied to shape a new Afghanistan in late 1980s

Two U.S. ambassadors in the late 1980s warned the U.S. government about potentially detrimental developments in Afghanistan in the wake of a Soviet military withdrawal, according to declassified documents obtained and recently published by the National Security Archive.  Ambassador John Gunther Dean in New Delhi highlighted the dangers of unfettered backing for the most hardline rebel factions in Afghanistan, while Ambassador Arnold Raphel in Islamabad pointed out the intent of America’s ally, Pakistan, to exert its influence in this “new phase … in the perennial great game.”

The documents come from the Ambassador John Gunther Dean Collection at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and show the delicate dynamics underlying negotiations about the future of Afghanistan on the eve and during the first phase of the Soviet withdrawal that started in May 1988 and was completed on schedule on February 15, 1989.

The declassified records also offer insights into the role of Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi, mainly through his correspondence with President Ronald Reagan, selections of which are featured in today’s posting

From the Cyber Vault: Congressional Hearing Documents

The Archive’s Cyber Vault recently published witness testimony and transcripts for hearings held by the 115th Congress during 2018. These documents are reflective of the scope of the legislative challenges and Congress’s priorities in the field. The list is ordered by committee, with hearings listed chronologically for each committee. Joint hearings appear at the end of the list for the Senate and the House.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with Argentine foreign minister, Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti, at a later meeting on October 7, 1976 (Photo courtesy of Clarí (Argentina))

TBT Pick: Kissinger Gave Strong Support Early on to Argentine Military Junta

This week’s #TBT pick is a 2004 posting of newly declassified documents obtained by the Archive showing that amidst vast human rights violations by Argentina’s security forces in June 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti:

“If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures.”

Kissinger’s comment is part of a 13-page Memorandum of Conversation reporting on a June 10 meeting between Secretary Kissinger and Argentine Admiral Guzzetti in Santiago, Chile.

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