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NSArchive Activity Round-up: FRINFORMSUM 3/30/2023

March 30, 2023

Archive Analyst William Burr and “The Movement and the Madman”

“The Movement and the ‘Madman’” recently premiered on PBS’s American Experience, and features an interview with the Archive’s William Burr. The documentary, directed by Stephen Talbot, examines how the intensity of the U.S. anti-Vietnam War movement forced President Richard Nixon to abandon plans to escalate the conflict in the fall of 1969 and instead implement his “madman” theory, approving a secret alert of U.S. nuclear forces around the world to project the idea that he was “crazy” and force adversaries to back down. Burr was interviewed alongside former government officials and antiwar activists, researchers, and historians. His book, co-written with Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, was also a key source for the film. 

The film can be viewed here.

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Filming Armageddon

Burr also recently published a fascinating posting on declassified Air Force training movies depicting U.S. preparation for nuclear war, including a U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) dramatization reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove. The SAC film, entitled “Nuclear Effects During SAC Delivery Missions,” is intended to familiarize SAC pilots and crew members with the devastating effects of nuclear weapons detonations and the detailed plans that the command had developed to help the crews evade the dangers of navigating through a nuclear battlefield. The narrator assures trainees that SAC had taken into account the effects of the blasts on U.S. aircrews and had prepared a “workable plan for every sortie to and from the target area.” SAC crewmembers are advised that they can safely navigate the aircraft home “if you follow rigidly your flight plan.”

The posting includes the “Nuclear Effects” film and four other movies produced by SAC and the U.S. Air Force during the 1960s that were declassified in response to requests by the National Security Archive. Published by the Archive for the first time, the films reveal how SAC prepared bomber pilots and crews for nuclear war, educated them on the effects of the devastating weapons, and acquainted them with the contents of their “Combat Mission Folders.”

Modernizing the Classification System

National Security Archive director Tom Blanton recently testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) in the March 23, 202,3 hearing, Modernizing the Government’s Classification System. Blanton was joined by the Brennan Center’s Liza Goitein, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, John Fitzpatrick, and Cato’s Patrick Eddington, and the entire hearing can be viewed here

The Archive submitted written testimony co-authored by Blanton, Archive policy director Lauren Harper, and Archive historian Dr. William Burr. The testimony describes the crisis of over-classification, the enormous backlogs of millions of classified records and thousands of unanswered declassification requests, and the incoming tsunami of digital secrets. It emphasized findings from our 2022 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) audit, which showed the National Archives suffering from 30 years of an almost flat-lined budget while the number of records for which it is responsible has increased exponentially. The Archive highlighted four key components of the National Archives that, if fully funded, would be more prepared to meet these challenges, but that at present – together with the entire National Archives system – are woefully underfunded. To counteract over-classification, the Archive called for original classifiers to assign sunsets at the front end – dates at which classification would expire automatically – along with more focused consideration of the costs of secrecy and the benefits of public release. On the back end, the system needs “drop dead” dates for automatic release with little or no review.

In Brief:

  • The nomination of Dr. Colleen Shogan to be the next Archivist of the United States will be voted on by the full Senate after she was voted out of HSGAC 8-4. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) had requested that the committee vote be postponed after allegations Shogan retaliated against a whistleblower during her time at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), but was ultimately unsuccessful. She also faced criticism for making her personal Twitter feed private. Shogun has stated that her priorities include visiting the National Declassification Center (NDC) and prioritizing the release of older records (she has not specified how) and reducing the huge backlog of veterans’ records requests. 
  • Guacamaya Leaks and the Ayotzinapa Case: 20 documents recently posted by the Archive are among millions stolen from the Mexican Defense Ministry by an anonymous collective of hackers known as “Guacamaya.” They show the Mexican military surveilled the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college for years before the forced disappearance of 43 students, and that Mexico’s National Defense Ministry worked to shield the institution from civilian scrutiny during the investigation. Read more here
  • Proliferation Watch: U.S. Intelligence Assessments of Potential Nuclear Powers, 1977-200 – New release of CIA report on September 1979 south Atlantic mystery flash joins annals of dubious secrets by exempting pages of previously released information. Other recently released reports illuminate pre-war controversy over Iraqi procurement of aluminum tubes for alleged gas centrifuge program. Read more here

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