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Weekend Read: Archive Interview With Expert Whose Findings Disputed Mexican Government’s “Historical Truth” in Ayotzinapa Case

February 4, 2022
Credit: Illustration by Dante Aguilera

The final episode of “After Ayotzinapa”, a collaboration between the National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting, aired Saturday, January 29, 2022. The series is the outcome of a three year investigation by National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle and Reveal News senior reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes into the 2014 mass disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in Mexico. The final episode, Chapter 3: All Souls, follows the reopened investigation under the new special prosecutor, Omar Gómez Trejo. In the previous episode, Chapter 2: The Cover Up, released on January 22, 2022, Doyle and Diaz-Cortes focus on the botched initial investigation into, and the government’s obstruction of, the Ayotzinapa case, and speak to the fire expert José Torero Cullen, whose findings proved the government’s official line was impossible. The Archive published the full interview José Torero Cullen on January 28, 2022.

Doyle and Diaz-Cortes interviewed José Torero Cullen, the head of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London, prior to the release of Episode 2. The interview focused on his experience working with the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, an acronym from its initials in Spanish) on the case of the 43 disappeared students. During the initial investigation into the disappearance, the Mexican government stated the students were burned in a trash dump, a statement they called the “historical truth”. At the GIEI’s request, José flew to Mexico in July 2015 from where he was then teaching, at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. 

José’s core finding – that a fire of the magnitude proposed by the government investigation could not have happened – ignited a scandal in the Mexican media, and proved the government’s “historical truth” impossible. News organizations questioned his brief visit to the dump itself, and tried to discredit his conclusions without examining the analysis that led to them. In addition to sharing how he came to his conclusions, Cullen also shares with Doyle and Diaz-Cortes his commitment to the truth, saying: “…my job was purely to reveal what was the scientific basis behind a proper interpretation of what had happened in that dump. And if the conclusion had been that a fire of that nature could have happened in that place and it could have incinerated the people, that’s exactly what I would have said. But the conclusion said completely the opposite.” Read the interview in full here

All three episodes of “After Ayotzinapa” are available below to listen or read a transcript, and are also available on your podcast app of choice: 

Chapter 1: The Missing 43 

Chapter 2: The Cover Up

Chapter 3: All Souls

Growing FOIA Backlogs Should Prompt More Automatic Declassification, Proactive Disclosure; DNI Haines Says Too Much Classified Info Hurts National Security; Obama Presidential Records Now Subject to FOIA, and Much More in this Week’s Super-Sized FRINFORMSUM 1/27/2022

January 27, 2022

FOIA Backlogs Doubled in Ten Years

The main finding of the Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s new FOIA report is that FOIA backlogs have nearly doubled in the last ten years; the report found “FOIA request backlogs increased by 18 percent (from 120,436 to 141,762) from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020. Backlogged requests have been trending generally upwards since fiscal year 2016 … From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2020, backlogs increased by a total of 97 percent.” 

FOIA backlogs have long been a perennial issue; President Obama tasked agencies in 2009 to reduce their FOIA backlogs by 10 percent a year, but by 2017 the Department of Health and Human Services was the only agency to have reached that goal. Government-wide, the problem is only getting worse. COVID-related delays exacerbated pre-existing problems and added new ones; including for the FBI FOIA office, whose classified FOIA system left it unprepared to adjust to the demands of telework. 

The increasing backlog of FOIA requests should make it clear to agencies and Congressional overseers alike that the only way forward is making automatic declassification and proactive disclosure robust, systematic features of each and every FOIA shop.  

The report also found that the number of FOIA requests received government-wide dropped by eight percent in fiscal year 2020 from fiscal year 2019. GAO also touts what may seem like a success – that “Agencies government-wide took less time on average to process simple and expedited requests, while taking more time to process complex requests from fiscal years 2019 to 2020.” What is not mentioned in the report is that the difference between simple and complex requests can be arbitrary; one agency – the Defense Intelligence Agency – claims that only two percent of its FOIA requests are simple. Focusing on requests that agencies self-define as simple paints a distorted picture of overall FOIA processing.

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DNI Haines Says Too Much Classified Information Hurts National Security

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines says, “The U.S. intelligence community’s approach to classifying vast amounts of information is so flawed that it harms national security and diminishes public trust in government.” The acknowledgement that overclassification undermines national security, which the National Security Archive has been arguing for decades, was made in a letter Haines sent to Sens. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) earlier this month. The letter was in response to an October 2021 request for information from Wyden and Moran, who are pushing to overhaul the declassification system, which they assess costs the public $18.5 billion a year. Haines explicitly states, “It is my view that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner.”

Stars and Stripes Reporter Sues DOD Over its Refusal to Accept FOIA Requests From Military Paper

Stars and Stripes reporter Chad Garland is suing the Defense Department for its refusal to process his FOIA requests and subsequent appeals because he works for the military publication. (Stars and Stripes is administered under the Pentagon’s Defense Media Activity; it is editorially independent but receives a DoD subsidy to offset the costs of providing a paper to troops stationed overseas.) The Pentagon stated in a March 4, 2021, memo that “any representative of (Stars and Stripes) cannot use the FOIA to gain access to DoD information,” continuing that, “If you receive a request from a (Stars and Stripes) employee that does not demonstrate (the publication’s) approval, you should close it as ‘not a proper FOIA request.’” The Pentagon’s stance on Stars and Stripes reporters is startling, considering that the Department accepts FOIA requests from reporters from papers from around the world, as well as from foreign governments.

Garland’s suit argues that the Pentagon does not have the right to restrict a private citizens’ ability to file a FOIA, and cites the 11th Circuit decision in Sikes v. Navy that ruled, “the Supreme Court has made clear that ‘the identity of the requesting party has no bearing on the merits of his or her FOIA request.’” National Security Counselors’ Kel McClanahan told Stars and Stripes’ Alison Bath that, “If the policy prevails, it could have a chilling effect on transparency, allowing the Pentagon or other agencies to restrict federal employees from using FOIA in a variety of cases, such as those involving whistleblowers.” 

Obama Presidential Records Now Subject to FOIA

President Barack Obama’s records became subject to the FOIA on January 20, 2022, five years after President Obama left office, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. The requested records will be released through both the New Obama Library website and the NARA catalog, but there will be no research library on site at the Obama library. This has prompted concerns that presidential scholarship may suffer, and begs questions about what this model could mean for future presidents unconcerned with preserving “nonpartisan public history,” according to the New York Times. (It is worth noting that the current presidential library system is not anywhere near perfect; current wait times for presidential records are well over a decade in the National Security Archive’s experience.)

For more information on how to request President Obama’s records, use this Fact Sheet

Lawmakers Skeptical of CIA’s Havana Syndrome Report

The CIA’s interim Havana Syndrome report found that there is no evidence of a foreign power “mounting a global attack aimed at U.S. personnel who have reported painful and sometimes debilitating physical symptoms.” Reports of US intelligence, diplomatic, and military personnel stationed overseas suffering from a spate of mysterious symptoms – including debilitating dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, and documented brain injuries – began in Cuba in 2016, earning the nickname Havana Syndrome, and cases now tally more than 1,000  worldwide. Some speculated that a foreign power was using an unknown, sophisticated microwave weapon in the global attack – a premise the report rejects, although it does not rule out that a foreign actor may be responsible for a small number of unsolved cases.

The report, and the absence of a clear diagnosis for the syndrome, may make it more difficult to implement the Havana Act, which was signed into law by President Biden in October 2021 and gives the government “six months to establish a framework for making payments to individuals who have suffered from related health incidents.”

Politico reports that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are criticizing the findings, questioning “the interim assessment’s timing and inconclusive nature, along with the fact that the report was not coordinated with other intelligence agencies ahead of its release.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also questioned why the agency released its report a week and a half before the intelligence community’s expert panel on Havana Syndrome is expected to complete its own investigation.

For more information on the Havana Syndrome, read Peter Kornbluh’s 2021 posting, CDC Report on the ‘Havana Syndrome’: Medical Mystery Remains Unresolved.

U.S. Ambassadors to Russia Interviewed

The National Security Archive recently updated our publication of interview transcripts from eight former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, providing essential historical context to debates over U.S.-Russian relations, with three additional interviews with the deans of American diplomacy with Moscow – Jack Matlock, Thomas Pickering, and James Collins.

The interviews are courtesy of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, where the Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies, under the direction of Professor Anna Vassilieva, has organized the entire Ambassadorial series of interviews and is publishing the material in videos, podcasts, and transcripts.

The three new interviews cover the 1990s in Russia and the rise of Vladimir Putin through the expert eyes of Jack Matlock, ambassador from 1987 to 1991, Thomas Pickering, ambassador from 1993 to 1996, and James Collins, ambassador from 1997 to 2001.  The interviews were conducted in 2021 by the Middlebury Institute’s expert Dr. Hannah Notte, based in Vienna.

National Security and Climate Change: Behind the U.S. Pursuit of Military Exemptions to the Kyoto Protocol

Pentagon demands for military exemptions during the 1997 Kyoto climate negotiations posed a substantial challenge for the Clinton administration both internally and with American allies, according to a collection of declassified internal papers posted last week by the National Security Archive. These documents have particular relevance as the Biden administration advances its climate change policy and the Pentagon commits to climate adaptation measures.

The records, which can be read here, primarily focus on the perspectives of U.S. negotiators and officials, but also include the views of members of Congress and others who were critical of the Kyoto Protocol because they wanted even larger carve-outs for military operations.

In Brief

  • The National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting released the second installment of the new podcast “After Ayotzinapa” this Saturday, January 22, 2022. The ongoing three-part series is the result of a three year investigation by National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle and Reveal News senior reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes into the September 26, 2014, disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. Learn more about the massacre, and where to listen to the podcast, here. 
  • A reverse FOIA lawsuit in Washington State is being brought by six Seattle Police Officers against reporters covering their presence at the January 6 Stop the Steal rally in Washington DC. Reporter Sam Sueoka details the case, which argues that the PRA request for their names violates the police officers’ right to protest, here; a hearing is currently scheduled for this Friday, January 28. For more information on, and examples of, reverse FOIA lawsuits, visit FOIA Wiki.
  • The Washington Post revealed in December 2021 that Maryland governor Larry Hogan uses the disappearing messaging app Wickr; Hogan argues the use of the app isn’t in violation of the state’s open records law because the messages sent through them are not subject to the state’s FOI law. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press dismantles Hogan’s erroneous claim here. 
  • The Chief FOIA Officers Council will hold a virtual meeting with the public on requesters’ experience with FOIA on Wednesday, February 2 at 2 PM EST . RSVP by the end of January here.

New “After Ayotzinapa” Podcast Episode Investigates US Connection to 2014 Mass Iguala Kidnapping

January 24, 2022
Credit: Illustration by Dante Aguilera

The National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting released the second installment of the new podcast “After Ayotzinapa” this Saturday, January 22, 2022. The ongoing three-part series is the result of a three year investigation by National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle and Reveal News senior reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes into the September 26, 2014, disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. The students were attacked while traveling to Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre; their families were initially told that corrupt police had turned the students over to a local gang that had murdered them and then burned the bodies – but there was much more to the story.  

In the latest episode, Chapter 2: The Cover Up, Doyle and Diaz-Cortes focus on the botched initial investigation into, and the government obstruction of, the Ayotzinapa case. A central question that is addressed in Chapter 2 is the allegedly local gang that was responsible for the murders. According to Doyle, who was brought into the case by the victims’ families, “There was a really intriguing lead in the case that the Mexican government had just ignored. And it came from a drug investigation in Chicago of all places. Here’s what happened. At the end of 2014, not long after the attack on the students, the US Justice Department posted a press release announcing a drug bust. It said eight men had been charged as a part of a heroin trafficking ring operating out of Aurora, a Chicago suburb. According to the DEA, the men were working for a Mexican drug cartel called Guerreros Unidos. That’s the same gang Mexican officials were saying was involved in the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala, Mexico. When the lawyers called, my first move was to track down this man” – this man being the now retired DEA agent Mark Giuffre. Listen to their discoveries – or read the transcript of the podcast, as well as several of the key documents behind the episode – here.   

The first episode, Chapter 1: The Missing 43, released on January 15, 2022, focuses on interviews with the students who survived the attack. The oral testimonies were recorded by John Gibler, an author, journalist, and activist who traveled from Mexico City to the teachers college in the immediate aftermath of the attack. In an interview with Doyle that was published by the Archive on January 21, 2022, Gibler recounts his experience reporting on the Ayotzinapa case, the risks of reporting on human rights violations in Mexico, and the extent to which reporting from fellow journalists on the Ayotzinapa case has contradicted the government record. Gibler also shared his analysis of how government authorities and organized crime colluded to produce one of Mexico’s most shocking human rights atrocities. 

The first two episodes of the podcast are available to listen on your podcast app of choice or Reveal’s website

The final episode, Chapter Three: All Souls, will air on January 29, 2022, and addresses the efforts being made by a new government to overcome the cover-up and truly advance the cause of truth and justice for the missing 43 students.

Episode 1 of “After Ayotzinapa” Podcast Premieres Tomorrow, January 15

January 14, 2022

By Claire Dorfman

“After Ayotzinapa” artwork. Credit: Dante Aguilera

On Saturday, January 15th, the first episode of “After Ayotzinapa,” Part One: The Missing 43, will premiere on podcast platforms and radio stations around the United States! The three-part serial is the result of a two-year collaboration between the National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Reported and co-produced by National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle and Reveal senior reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, “After Ayotzinapa” reveals the story of what happened in the months and years following the forced disappearance of 43 college students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico on September 26, 2014. 

There are three ways to listen to the premier episode:

  1. On your podcast app of choice: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher 
  2. On Reveal’s website 
  3. On more than 600 radio stations around the country, for example –
City, StateNetwork NameCall LettersDialDateTime
San Francisco, CAKQEDKQWS-FM88.5Saturday4 PM
Los Angeles, CAKPCCKPCC-FM89.3Sunday4 PM
Houston, TXKUHFKUHF-FM88.7Saturday2 PM
Washington, DCWAMUWAMU-FM88.5Sunday3 PM
Boston, MAWGBHWGBH-FM89.7Sunday1 PM
11 AM
7 PM
Chicago, ILWBEZWBEZ-FM91.5Saturday3 PM
Miami, FLWLRNWLRN-FM109.9Saturday3 PM

Cómo escucharnos desde México y más allá:

Puedes reproducir los episodios desde el sitio web de Reveal o en aplicaciones como Apple Podcasts, Spotify y Stitcher

New NSArchive/Reveal News Podcast Coming 1/15, a New Domestic Terrorism Unit, and More: FRINFORMSUM 1/13/2022

January 13, 2022
Original digital collage by Jan Nimmo, Yo, Jan Nimmo, Glasgow, Escocia, quiero saber dónde está Benjamín Ascencio Bautista

“After Ayotzinapa” Podcast Investigates Horrific Mexican Atrocity

On Saturday, January 15, a new podcast exploring the shocking case of 43 Mexican students disappeared by security forces in 2014 will launch on radio stations around the United States and on podcast platforms. The three-part serial is the result of a two-year collaboration between the National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Although the stark facts of the Ayotzinapa case are known worldwide, the podcast features interviews, insights, and investigative findings that have never before been heard.  They include eye-witness accounts, exclusive interviews with the Mexican special prosecutor and a retired DEA officer, testimonies, and vivid personal accounts of survivors and relatives of the victims.

Reported and co-produced by National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle and Reveal senior reporter Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, “After Ayotzinapa” exposes the story of what happened in the months and years following that terrible “night of Iguala.” Listen along on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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NSArchive January 6 Anniversary Postings

National Security Archive staff marked the one-year anniversary of the January 6 riot with two new postings.  

The first item is a meticulously researched timeline of the day’s events. The chronology, which will serve as an important tool for investigators, researchers, and the public, is divided into three main parts:

  1. Events that took place at the Capitol that we know about thanks to stellar reporting from organizations like ProPublica, The New York Times, the AP, The Washington Post, NPR, Politico, and Newsweek, as well as information provided by a host of both local and federal officials in Congressional testimony;
  2. Activity at the White House, drawn primarily from former President Trump’s official statements on Twitter;
  3. The Department of Defense’s official timeline that was published on January 8, 2021.

The chronology, taken together with our three previous January 6 sourcebooks, provides a high level of detail about the attempted coup, while at the same time underscoring just how much about federal or local government decisions and actions remains unknown to the public.  Each entry includes a source, with hyperlink, and a Who’s Who of key figures is also provided.  The Archive will update the timeline as important new information surfaces.

The second item is a Cyber Brief from Archive Cyber Fellow Cristin J. Monahan examining the double-edged role the Internet played in the January 6 attack and its aftermath. Documents highlighted in the Brief include a January 12, 2021, Congressional Research Service report, “Cybersecurity Concerns Related to the Recent Breach of U.S. Capitol Security,” which Monahan notes highlights a trifecta of core issues:

  • “the role of social media platforms in enabling violent groups to organize and carry out their objectives, and the role of government in monitoring that speech;
  • the use of public communications networks for alerting congressional building occupants; and
  • the risk to information and technology from unauthorized and unscreened persons’ access to the U.S. Capitol.”

Another document highlighted in the brief, the declassified January 11, 2021, United States Postal Inspection Service, Situational Awareness Bulletin – Intelligence Summary: United States Capitol Riot Data Archives, which was released thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Property of the People, details how law enforcement relied on members of the public who archived online material from Parler for intelligence.  Read the rest of the documents in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault. 

Congressional Staffers Emailed DOJ RE January 6 Concerns

FOIA releases to Buzzfeed News show that “At least two congressional staffers from House and Senate committees reached out to the FBI and the Justice Department concerned about security at the Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 riots.” Reporters Kadia Goba and Jason Leopold note that the FOIA releases underscore that the FBI was unprepared for the riot despite warnings and requests for help.  The releases, which came only after Buzzfeed News filed a FOIA lawsuit, show that: 

  • The House Intelligence Committee requested a threat assessment and clarification on coordination between the FBI and the Department of Defense on January 5, 2021, citing growing concern about the transition; in response the Committee received “a brief and non-substantive reply from the FBI that did not provide any information about potential threats on January 6.”
  • A Democratic staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee sent several emails between January 4 and January 7 to both the Department of Justice and the FBI inquiring about additional law enforcement presence at the Capitol for January 6.
  • Other notable releases include a redacted Department of Justice “copy of then–acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue’s handwritten notes from a Jan. 4, 2021, phone call he had with Michael Sherwin, the then–acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, that discusses crowd estimates and law enforcement plans. Donoghue’s notes say: ‘no need for additional resources now,’” and intelligence memos prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI that were sent to local law enforcement on the anticipated threat posed by the “Stop the Steal” rally.

New Domestic Terrorism Unit

The Justice Department is forming a new domestic terrorism unit, according to January 11, 2022, testimony from Matthew G. Olsen, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Olsen reported that the number of FBI investigations of domestic violent extremists had more than doubled since 2020; he also said “authorities had arrested and charged more than 725 people, including more than 325 facing felony counts, in connection with their roles in the Jan. 6 attack.”

Olson’s testimony comes at the same time as Democratic lawmakers are scrutinizing why the DOJ has yet to seek harsher domestic terrorism sentences for those charged in connection with the January 6 attack. Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports that such enhancements “typically adds about 15 years in prison to a defendant’s recommended sentence, sets the minimum calculation at 17 and a half years, and also flips the person charged into the criminal-history category used for serial offenders.” Olsen testified that the DOJ could still request such enhancements “as prosecutors win convictions in more-serious cases.” 

In Brief

  • The first Guantanamo Bay detainees arrived on the base 20 years ago this week. The Nation’s Clair MacDougall’s story marking the anniversary, which draws heavily on decades of FOIA work by journalists and human rights advocates, finds that press restrictions are getting worse.
  • Public records obtained by The Markup are shedding light on Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that builds education software, and its work to collect troves of personal data on children, “which they use to fuel a suite of predictive analytics products that push the boundaries of technology’s role in education and, in some cases, raise discrimination concerns.”
  • Jason Leopold recently tweeted, “This week, I learned that for at least 2 yrs an official in HHS #FOIA office held a monthly contest for staff who processed requests: those who redacted the most pages of docs per month could choose a paid day off or a $25 gift card from DoorDash. If you have info I’m on Signal.”
  • Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, has announced his retirement, effective mid-April 2022. Ferriero has led the National Archives and Records Administration for 12 years; prior to that, he served as the Director of the New York Public Library.

Weekend Read: Social Media, USPS Surveillance, and the Capitol Attack

January 7, 2022

Archive Cyber Fellow Cristin Monahan examined government records that highlight the double-edged role the Internet played in the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack and its aftermath in this week’s Cyber Brief: Cyber and the Insurrection, One Year Later. While social media sites like Parler were used to help plan and coordinate the January 6 attack, the public record also makes clear that they allowed civilian sleuths (some called themselves “Sedition Hunters”) to collect and share data to identify riot participants, aiding federal authorities. 

The posting features the declassified January 11, 2021, United States Postal Inspection Service, Situational Awareness Bulletin – Intelligence Summary: United States Capitol Riot Data Archives, which was released thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by Property of the People. The bulletin details how law enforcement relied on members of the public who archived online material from Parler for intelligence. The USPIS document shows that while Amazon suspended Parler’s web services on January 9, 2021, following an alarming influx in popularity after the insurrection (Cnet reported that the app was downloaded 997,000 times across the Apple App Store and Google Play between January 6th and January 10th – more than ten times the amount leading up to January 6), that by January 10, 2021, a public media server set up by data archive company Intelligence X to capture the Parler posts had caught “over 200 Gigabytes of data and has surpassed 10 Terabytes of download traffic.” Monahan states, “The bulletin’s authors conclude that while Parler itself is inaccessible for the foreseeable future, ‘the efforts fronted by … public contributions of data can assist law enforcement in the analysis and identification of parties involved in the US Capitol Protests.’”

The US Postal Inspection Service learned about the Intelligence X trove from its Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP ) – an obscure arm of the Postal Service that monitors social media posts. As Politico reported on September 27, 2021, two January 11 USPIS bulletins (the second is available here) have increased scrutiny of, and jurisdiction questions concerning, the Postal Service’s involvement in law enforcement and surveillance operations. Chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and ranking member James Comer (R-KY) requested an Inspector General review of iCOP on May 25, 2021, following news reports that the program was monitoring American’s social media for “inflammatory” posts. 

For more weekend reading concerning the investigations made possible by the archived Parler data, see ProPublica’s January 17, 2021, visual investigation, “What Parler Saw During the Capitol Attack.” 

For more on the Postal Service’s surveillance programs, see the New York Times’ August 13, 2015, article, “Copy of Postal Service Audit Shows Extent of Mail Surveillance”. The article highlights a Postal Services Inspector General audit that was released through FOIA and that sheds light on another USPS surveillance program, called mail covers. The audit found that USPS didn’t maintain “sufficient controls” to ensure employees followed protocol for handling the mail covers and inspectors “failed to follow key safeguards in the gathering and handling of classified information.”

2021 Documents in Review: Earliest Known 2001 Afghanistan Strategy Paper

December 21, 2021

The National Security Archive is celebrating the end of 2021 by looking back to our most impactful postings of the year and highlighting the documents behind them. This week, we’re revisiting former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s declassified October 30, 2001, memo to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Doug Feith. Entitled “Strategy”, the memo, which concerned the U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan, was  featured in the Archive’s August 19, 2021, posting, Afghanistan 20/20: The 20-Year War in 20 Documents

The posting addresses the problems that bedeviled the American war in Afghanistan from its inception. Declassified documents made available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and featured in the publication detail how the flawed American military strategy in Afghanistan was only further compounded by poor policy decisions. The posting includes declassified documents on: the early lack of “visibility into who the bad guys are;” Pakistan’s double game of taking U.S. aid while providing a sanctuary to the Taliban; “mission creep” as a counterterror effort against al-Qaeda morphed into a nation-building war against the Taliban; loss of attention to Afghanistan as the Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq; endemic corruption; fake statistics and gassy metrics not only by the military but also the State Department, US AID, and their many contractors; mismatch between Afghan realities and American designs for a new centralized government and modernized army; and more. The information in the documents often contradicts public statements made by Department of Defense and White House officials over the twenty year conflict. 

Today’s document is an October 30, 2001, ‘snowflake’ memo authored by Rumsfeld and sent to his top policy aide, Doug Feith, detailing the first phase of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The copy includes Rumsfeld’s personal handwritten edits, with a note to Feith that “The U.S. should not commit to any post-Taliban military involvement since the U.S. will be heavily engaged in the anti-terrorism effort worldwide.” The entirety of Rumsfeld’s ‘snowflake’ memos were released to the Archive following litigation with the Department of Defense with pro bono representation from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and are available to researchers through the Digital National Security Archive.

Happy holidays to all of our readers! 

2021 Documents in Review: Anatoly Chernyaev’s 1981 Diary

December 15, 2021

The National Security Archive is bringing 2021 to a close by revisiting our most significant postings and the documents behind them. This week, we are looking back at The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, 1981, translated and published in English for the first time in our May 25, 2021, posting, The Chernyaev Centennial.

The posting was published on Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyaev’s 100th birthday and features the first English-language translation of the Chernyaev diary from 1981. Chernyaev was a trained historian, a combat veteran of World War II, a deeply literary member of the Moscow intelligentsia, and a high-level Central Committee official. Chernyaev also served as the national security adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from March 1986 through the end of the USSR in December 1991. From 1971 through 1991, Chernyaev put his most candid thoughts into his diary, written almost daily.

Today’s document, the 1981 diary, was written while Chernyaev was deputy director of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and provides remarkable insights into the Brezhnev era at a crucial turning point – the first year of the Reagan administration. The diary sheds special light  on one of the most critical issues of the year: whether or not the Soviet Union would invade Poland to suppress the Solidarity movement. To Chernyaev, one important exception to general secretary Brezhnev’s inability to govern was the Soviet leader’s strong preference not to intervene militarily in the Polish crisis. Ultimately, the Soviet Union did not intervene, and this is now recognized as playing a central role in the end of Soviet rule in Poland in 1989. In perhaps the most remarkable passage from the 1981 diary, Chernyaev remarks, “if the Sovietologists and Kremlinologists’ fantasy came true and they got to be a fly on the wall at a session of our PB [Politburo], later nobody would ever believe this ‘fly.’ They would think he is fooling them or has lost his mind.” 

Chernyaev donated his diaries to the National Security Archive, where they have been translated and published into English. Nearly every English-language study of the late Soviet period has quotations from Archive translations of Chernyaev’s diary

Check back next week for more!

2021 Documents in Review: Earliest Known CIA Plot to Assassinate Raul Castro

December 10, 2021
tags: , ,

The National Security Security Archive is winding-up 2021 by highlighting the most important documents from our most popular postings. This week we’re looking back at the declassified Top Secret January 17, 1975, CIA memorandum, “Questionable Activities”, which was originally published in the Archive’s April 16, 2021, posting, CIA Assassination Plot Targeted Cuba’s Raul Castro.

The posting examines the earliest known CIA assassination plot against leaders of the Cuban revolution. In the 1975 plot, high-level CIA officials offered the pilot of a chartered Cubana Airlines plane carrying Raul Castro, brother to Fidel Castro, and other leaders of the Community Party of Cuba, “payment after successful completion of ten thousand dollars” to “incur risks in arranging accident” during the flight from Prague to Havana. The Cuban pilot, Jose Raul Martinez, who the CIA had earlier recruited as an intelligence asset, “asked for assurance that in the event of his [own] death the U.S. would see that his two sons were given a college education.” “This assurance was given,” his CIA handler in Havana, William J. Murray, reported. But after the pilot left for Prague, the CIA Havana station received an urgent cable from CIA Deputy Director of Plans, Stacy Barnes, to rescind the assassination plot – but were unable to further contact the pilot. 

Today’s document, a declassified January 17, 1975, TOP SECRET memorandum, was filed by William Murray with the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General. The document, which was declassified as part of the JFK Assassination Records Act and initially appeared in John Prados’ Digital National Security Archive collection, CIA Covert Operations II: The Year of Intelligence, 1975, details how Martinez agreed to “take a calculated risk but limited the possibilities which could pass as an accident.” Upon his return from Prague, Martinez was debriefed and reported, “he had no opportunity to arrange an accident such as we had discussed prior to his departure.” A lucky coincidence given the CIA had rescinded the plan.

This “accident plot” was obliquely described in the special Senate Committee report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, published  in 1976 after an investigation into CIA covert actions led by Senator Frank Church. The Church Committee report identified the plot as “the first action against the life of a Cuban leader sponsored by the CIA of which the Committee is aware”, but the Committee withheld—or perhaps was denied—key details, including that the would-be assassin was a pilot and the “accident” would involve a civilian airliner.

Check back next week for more!

2021 Documents in Review: Document Details Averted Meeting Between Kissinger and Argentina Military Ahead of 1976 Coup

December 3, 2021
Coup leaders Admiral Massera and General Videla.

The National Security Archive is wrapping up 2021 by looking back at some of our most impactful postings from the past year and highlighting the biggest documents behind them. This week we’re highlighting a declassified 1976 cable sent from Ambassador to Argentina, Robert Hill, to Acting Assistant Secretary of State Hewson Ryan. The cable warns against a potential meeting between Secretary Kissinger and Argentine military counterparts on the eve of the 1976 coup d’état against Isabel Perón as President of Argentina. The document was originally published in the Archive’s March 23, 2021, posting, Argentina’s Military Coup of 1976: What the U.S. Knew. 

Today’s highlighted posting was made possible by the Archive’s decades-long FOIA work to win the release of information on what the U.S. government knew about the March 24, 1976, overthrow of Isabel Peron’s government. The posting provides evidence of multiple contacts between the coup plotters and U.S. officials, though “there is no evidence that the U.S. instigated the coup,” said Carlos Osorio, Director of the National Security Archive Southern Cone Documentation Project. “But the United States accepted, and tacitly supported, regime change because Washington shared the military’s position that the putsch was the only alternative to chaos in Argentina.” Osorio noted that “U.S. officials wanted to believe that General Videla, the coup leader, was a moderate. The military dictatorship that followed killed and disappeared more than 20,000 people.”

Today’s document is a highly restricted cable sent to Acting Assistant Secretary of State Hewson Ryan (Assistant Secretary William Roger was traveling to Caracas) from Ambassador Robert Hill. The cable details an attempt by a claimed Argentine military representative to arrange a meeting with Kissinger ahead of the coup, as well as confirmation that third parties had already indicated that Washington would recognize a new government in Argentina following the coup. 

In the cable, Ambassador Hill reports that an American-Argentine citizen named “Carnicero” is trying to arrange a meeting between an Argentine military representative and Secretary Kissinger, “so that they can explain the political situation in Argentina.” As the cable continues, Ambassador Hill intervenes, stating: “I discouraged Carnicero from going forward with this idea.” The Ambassador says, “Such a meeting, should it become public knowledge, could be misinterpreted to the detriment of the officers themselves as well as of Secretary Kissinger. Further, I said, it seemed to me unnecessary. The embassy has discreetly and through third parties already indicated to the military that the USG will recognize a new govt in Argentina …” 

The cable ends with Ambassador Hill doubting the authenticity of the offer and questioning whether Carnicero is not actually a lone actor. Hill warns that Carnicero, “…may wish to demonstrate to the military how well-connected he is by suggesting and bringing about a meeting with Secretary Kissinger. Were this the military’s own idea, I believe they would have used other channels.” 

Check back next week for more!