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How declassification mechanisms and FOIA have ensured vital transparency in the history of American foreign policy

Mar 14, 2023 by AFPF

This post was written by Lauren Harper for Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s 2023 Sunshine Week essay series on how government transparency and the Freedom of Information Act have transformed society.

Successful declassification initiatives play an outsized role in promoting America’s foreign policy objectives. The reverse is also true; overclassification undermines both critical national security and democratic interests.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has reiterated this sentiment multiple times during her tenure, noting at a recent conference that the war in Ukraine, space, and the cyber domain are all areas where overclassification has negatively impacted U.S. goals.

Luckily, the Freedom of Information Act, the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, and other declassification measures have proven successful in countering needless and harmful obfuscation.

FOIA requests filed by my organization, the National Security Archive, have been critical in shedding light on relations with the Soviet Union and, after its collapse, the new Russia. We have used FOIA to open revelatory documents on key developments of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, détente of the 1970s, the 1983 War Scare, and the end of the Cold War.

In one recent example, FOIA-released records obtained by the Archive and published on our website demonstrate that the “George H.W. Bush administration was reluctant to embrace the ‘relations of deep mutual trust and alliance’ proposed by the newly independent Russian Federation and its leader, Boris Yeltsin, in early 1992.” Releases like these have not only helped researchers and historians; at a time of renewed tensions with the Kremlin, the documents inform current members of Congress, the administration, and the military community of past lessons learned.

Parallel efforts to win the release of documents on nuclear and nonproliferation issues have continued to inform the public on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy. These records will be increasingly important now that Russia has signed a law suspending the New START nuclear arms control agreement.

Despite the proven importance of common-sense declassification processes touted by the DNI herself, the Pentagon is again seeking expansive authority to classify older diplomatic records. Specifically, it wants the current executive order on classified national security information, EO 13526, to be revised to grant it more leeway to hide information that would ostensibly harm current diplomatic efforts.

The Department of Defense is fighting for this authority even though the current EO already contains a foreign policy exemption that the Pentagon routinely exploits, including to withhold or heavily redact information that is already public.

In one recent example highlighted by my colleague Bill Burr, the Pentagon misused the EO’s current foreign policy exemption to withhold State Departments documents that are now sixty years old concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis and that are held at the National Archives in College Park. One of the withheld documents, an October 19, 1962, intelligence community product entitled, “Joint Evaluation of Soviet Missile Threat in Cuba,” has already been public for 25 years as part of the State Department’s FRUS series.

This brings us to the FRUS itself. The State Department has repeatedly accused the DoD of not doing enough to meet its obligations to help publish the FRUS, which it is statutorily obligated to publish as a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” record of U.S. foreign policy “no later than 30 years after the events that they document.” This raises the question of why the Pentagon should have more authority over diplomatic materials.

At a recent event held by the Public Interest Declassification Board, the director of the State Department’s Office of the Historian, Adam Howard, called the FRUS, “arguably the largest transparency project in the world.”

I won’t disagree; the series is tremendously important for Americans to have an accurate understanding of their history. But for the law to be met, the State Department is dependent on the full and timely cooperation of military agencies and the intelligence community. Tellingly, the DoD continues to struggle with meeting its obligation.

The State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) has repeatedly called out the DoD for its poor performance declassifying select documents for the FRUS. In its annual report for 2018, the HAC states, “once again the Department of Defense in 2018 performed so negligently and so egregiously violated the requirements mandated by the Foreign Relations statute that it more than offset the commendable efforts of the other agencies and departments.”

Any new executive order should not give the DoD further leeway to needlessly withhold information, especially if it could further delay the statutorily mandated publication of the FRUS. Instead of lobbying for greater secrecy, influential agencies like the Department of Defense should tangibly commit to reduce overclassification, particularly of historical records, and help ensure DNI Haines’s quest to reduce overclassification and bolster our national security and democratic objectives.

Discover more thought-provoking essays on how government transparency and the Freedom of Information Act have transformed society. 

Lauren Harper is the Director of Public Policy & Open Government Affairs at the National Security Archive. She has authored or co-authored ten of the Archive’s government-wide FOIA audits, including 2022’s “U.S. National Archives’ Budget: The 30-Year Flatline,” and 2021’s “‘Still Interested’ Letters Add Insult to Injury of Long-Ignored FOIA Requests.” She also writes regularly for the Archive’s blog, Unredacted, on a wide-range of FOIA and national security issues.