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Advisory Panels in Tenuous Position under Trump, the Fight Intensifies for Guatemala’s Police Archives, and More: FRINFORMSUM 8/1/2019

August 1, 2019

Advisory Panels in Peril?

The JASON Defense Advisory Panel, which advises the U.S. government on defense science and technology matters, is the latest advisory panel the Trump administration is attempting to dismantle. The panel was established in 1960 and a review by the Federation of American Scientists reports that about half of the its reports are unclassified (a selection of reports dating as recently as 2018 can be found here). The Trump administration disbanded another science panel – the Department of Justice’s forensic science panel – in 2017.

Other disbanded panels include a State Department panel dealing with nuclear nonproliferation, the Independent Security Advisory Board, which was suspended in 2018. Two Navy committees were also on the chopping block this February – the Naval Research Advisory Committee and the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel.

The CIA’s Historical Review Panel also appears to be a victim of this trend. Dr. Robert Jervis, the panel’s chair, announced in an H-Diplo posting earlier this year that the panel did not meet in June 2018 as planned, and that members were recently informed “the Panel is being restructured and will not meet again until this has been done. The reasons for this remain unclear to us, and no schedule for resumed meetings has been announced.” Jervis noted that the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee continues to monitor the agency’s cooperation in producing FRUS volumes, but goes on to make several vague references to possible changes to the way the agency reviews historical documents.

A CIA spokeswoman recently told Reuters that the panel would be reconstituted with new members later this year.

Guatemalan Police Archives.

Guatemala’s Right to History  

The Archive’s Kate Doyle talked with Foreign Policy this week about Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales’ efforts to close the country’s national police archives under the guise of national security concerns. Despite the significance of the records, which document the central branch of Guatemala’s security forces – an entity so deeply involved in repression during the armed conflict that the 1996 peace accords mandated it be completely disbanded – Doyle says, “The U.S. is saying nothing. The U.S. Embassy has been incredibly absent on these issues. They are not doing anything.” She added that the “assault on the police archive [is part of a] broader attack against human rights, justice, and anti-corruption efforts.”

The long-abandoned police archives were discovered in 2005 and contain 80-million pages covering the activities of the National Police from the late 19th century until its dissolution in 1997.  With the help of the National Security Archive and other organizations, the files were rescued from their deteriorating state, restored, and are in on-going process of being fully digitized, archived and made available to the public. Today, the Guatemalan National Police Archive constitutes one of largest and most revealing collections of “dirty war” documentation ever unearthed in Latin America. The records have also served prosecutors as crucial evidence in human rights criminal cases, leading to the conviction of military and police perpetrators.

Doyle voiced additional concerns to The Intercept in June that Morales may not only use national security concerns as a cover for closing the archives, but that the government may take legal action against the Swiss government and the University of Texas at Austin, which both have backup copies of the archives.

For more information on the police archives, visit our special collection.

NARA Releases Racist Reagan Tapes it Previously Withheld on Privacy Grounds

Members of the Tanzanian delegation danced on the floor of the General Assembly after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China in October 1971, a move that incensed then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan called President Nixon after that vote and said, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon taped the recording, which later became the property of the Nixon Presidential Library, and later the National Archives (NARA).

NARA released a redacted version of the tape in 2000, but withheld the racist portions of the conversation to protect Reagan’s privacy – until Tim Naftali, a former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and current NYU professor, filed a successful request for an unredacted copy of the tape.

Paul Musgrave has a succinct and interesting explanation of how the Presidential Records Act of 1981, and its privacy exemption, applied to presidents like Nixon whose records pre-dated the Act. The question remains why the privacy exemption was extended to Reagan.

NSA Kept American’s Phone Records It Shouldn’t Have Had in the First Place

The National Security Agency (NSA) announced last year that it had purged Americans’ phone records that it had “inappropriately” collected as part of its drag-net surveillance of domestic phone calls. A new NSA IG report released through an ACLU FOIA lawsuit shows that the agency “inadvertently” continued to keep some of those records. The agency deleted the remaining data after it IG’s office discovered the error.

Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA had formally recommended terminating its controversial phone and text surveillance program, which has been frequently criticized for violating Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless search and seizure. The program has also been criticized for its lack of transparency, including most infamously Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s later-recanted statement in Congressional testimony before Senator Ron Wyden that the NSA did not collect any type of data on Americans. Beyond these criticisms, legal and logistical hurdles in recent years have reportedly encumbered the program. “The candle is not worth the flame,” a senior intelligence official told the Journal.

As the telephone metadata collection program approaches its final days, the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault has pulled together a range of materials that chart its legislative origins and evaluate it from the perspective of effectiveness, legal and privacy concerns, and other considerations.

Air Force Fleet Readiness Continues to Decline

The percentage of Air Force aircraft that are able to fly has decreased each year since at least FY 2012, and an Air Force Times FOIA request shows that “By fiscal 2017, that metric had plunged to 71.3 percent, and it dipped further to 69.97 percent in 2018.” The Times reports this 8-percentage point drop continues despite the Air Force’s growing concerns and attempts to reverse the slide. Several trends are particularly worrying, including:

  • “The F-35A Lightning II fighter, down 5 percentage points. Fewer than half of the Air Force’s 148 F-35s were deemed mission-capable in 2018;
  • The F-15E Strike Eagle, down 4 percentage points;
  • The CV-22 Osprey, down 7 percentage points.”

TBT Pick – The Gulf War 29 Years Later

This week’s #TBT pick is chosen with the 29th anniversary of the Gulf War in mind. This 2001 posting includes a variety of documents from the Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Command, Space Command, and more, which cover internal decision-making as well as diplomatic, economic, and conventional military activities. This briefing book primarily focuses on the intelligence, space operations, and Scud-hunting aspects of the war.  It also includes a report describing how Desert Storm affected China’s view of future warfare, a document that raises questions as to what lessons other nations have drawn from U.S. military engagements in the Middle East and the Balkans.

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