U.S. Navy’s History Program “At Risk”
Core elements of the U.S. Navy’s historical program are “at risk” according to a recent report by the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General’s Office released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The IG’s report on the inspection of the Navy’s History and Heritage Command dramatically reinforces concerns that scholars have had in recent years about the state of the navy’s history program. According to the report, released through a FOIA request by the National Security Archive, historical records and artifacts are housed in a precarious environment, and invaluable archival material is in danger. The History and Heritage Command’s leadership has not been using due diligence to ensure that naval commands and fleets are creating historical records of their ongoing activities. Moreover, according to the IG report, the Navy’s professional historians, archivists, curators, and librarians who work for the history command feel “disenfranchised” because of “their marginalization in decision processes and lack of advancement opportunity.”
Specific problems cited include damage to historical paintings, lack of accreditation to museums, a huge backlog of unprocessed archival collections, and lack of awareness that workers at the Naval Aviation Museum had been exposed to toxic metals. The IG did not make specific recommendations but advised the Navy leadership to establish a panel of historians to provide guidance on a “way ahead” for the program.
For background on the report and information on the crisis in the Navy’s history program, National Security Archive staffers John Prados and William Burr, and Larry Berman, dean of the Honors College at George State University, have prepared detailed comments. “Unredacted” invites further comments from our readers.
Naval Inspector General Command Inspection of Naval History and Heritage Command 15-23 August 2011, For Official Use Only
Comments by William Burr
For years, the Operational Archives at the Naval History and Heritage Command (formerly Naval Historical Center), located at the Washington Navy Yard, have been an extraordinary source of information on the Navy’s role in U.S. history. Most of the records date from the Cold War period including such treasures such as the Chief of Naval Operations “00” files and the papers of Admiral Arleigh Burke. Over the years, the Navy’s archives have been a wonderful source for projects at the National Security Archive on U.S. nuclear policy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other topics. Without access to key documents in its holdings a number of the Archive’s Electronic Briefing Books would have been empty shells. Just one example, the Archive’s EBB s, “The Submarines of October,” an EBB on how the Navy tracked Soviet submarines during the Missile Crisis, could not have been prepared without access to the Flag Plot files. The archival staff is unfailingly helpful in assisting researchers as they navigate the Archives’ complex and varied holdings.
Yet, a series of troubling developments raised questions about the overall management of the archives by the History and Heritage Command. The archives are housed in a 19th century building which is plainly not suited for the long-term care of invaluable historical records. Moreover, large portions of the archives are classified and the declassification of this huge backlog is lagging. The Navy’s history program was tardy in complying with the Kyl-Lott Amendments requirements for re-review for Restricted Data and Formerly Restricted Data. This legislative mandate means that historical records that had previously been available have been impounded and subject to page-by-page review. The contractors who are conducting the review have taken an inflexible approach which undoubtedly wastes taxpayer dollars (see Larry Berman’s discussion below).
That records were impounded came as no surprise (the same thing happened at NARA II, although in a more researcher-friendly way), but the late start, years after the law went into effect was perplexing. If the Command was really an advocate for history, it could have gone to the CNO and the Secretary of the Navy to show that through 2006 adequate security declassification review had already been done of thousands of pages of post-World War II records and that nuclear weapons information had been accounted for. Certainly, it would have been possible to impound temporarily far less material.
More recently, other news about the Navy’s history program has been disturbing, for example, that invaluable tapes of oral history interviews conducted during the war in Iraq are missing. Perhaps they will be recovered, but the historical records of the U.S.-led Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic were never saved or else were destroyed shortly after the Cold War and the command’s sea defense mission ended. This incalculable loss to historians stands in sharp contrast to the excellent SHAPE Archives in Brussels that contain the records of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and which has been progressively declassifying key NATO strategic plans and concepts for public use in the last decade. The History Command cannot be blamed for this loss, but it points to the need for a stronger archival program to ensure that historically significant records are preserved.
Apparently, apprehension about the environment for historical records has led to plans to close the Archives and put the records in storage, which would be bad news for researchers in and out of government. But that is only one element of the History and Heritage Command’s problems. Last fall, I learned that an apparently routine survey by the Navy’s Inspector General had produced a strongly critical report. This was confirmed in a January 2012 Navy Times article about the IG’s action. By then the National Security Archive had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report.
The Navy did not take long to process the request and the report was released in late March 2012. The IG’s cover memo discloses its major finding: that key elements of the Navy’s history program are “at risk.” Historical records and artifacts are housed in a precarious environment and invaluable material is at risk. The history program’s leadership is not using due diligence to ensure that naval commands and fleets are creating historical records on their ongoing activities. Moreover, according to the IG report, the Navy’s professional historians, archivists, curators, and librarians who work for the History Command feel “disenfranchised” because of “their marginalization in decision processes and lack of advancement opportunity.” Specific problems cited by the IG include damage to historical paintings, lack of accreditation for museums, a huge backlog of unprocessed archival collections, and the Command’s tardiness in recognizing that workers at the Naval Aviation Museum had been exposed to toxic metals.
While the IG was preparing its report, the History Command prepared a “strategic plan” which it put on-line in November 2011. The IG took the plan into account, but did not change its evaluation. It is easy to understand why the IG may have been unimpressed. For example, the plan calls for fixing what has been broken by new storage arrangements for archival records and artifacts, but it does not establish a priority for making them available to researchers in and outside of the Navy. Further, the plan gives no indication that the Command sees any aspect of naval history that it wants to use its resources to research and write about, either for official or even classified purposes, or for eventual release to the public. While the Army and Air Force have vital and highly productive history programs, that include classified and unclassified histories, the Navy has nothing like that. Sadly, as the IG report implies, the Command’s historians has been left adrift, without a clear mission to produce histories for the Navy leadership or the general public.
According to one close observer, “the strategic plan is a plan for an organization, rather than a plan for history in the Navy.” This raises the question whether the creation of layers of bureaucracy at the Command have eaten up resources that ought to go into the archives and other elements of a sound history program, for example, by using resources to ensure that historians are attached to the Navy’s operational commands. While Air Force and Army commands traditionally have had historians, both civilian and uniformed, the Navy has not followed that practice.
It is lamentable that the historical program of one of the U.S. armed services is in the situation described in the IG report. The IG did not make any specific recommendations to solve the Command’s problems beyond a proposal that the Navy leadership appoint a “blue ribbon panel of eminent historians” to make “independent recommendations … on a way ahead” for the history program. Yet the report amounts to a vote of no confidence in the History and Heritage Command’s leadership from which readers can easily deduce another recommendation: that new leadership is necessary. What the Navy’s leaders need to consider is whether the Command would best be managed by individuals who will be advocates for naval history and who care about history, as demonstrated by a career interest in, and commitment to, naval history. TheCNO and the Secretary of the Navy might also consider whether the Navy would best be served by a stand-alone history program, leaving the museum program to be managed by a special directorate. So far, however, neither the History Command nor the Navy leadership have followed through on the IG’s recommendation.
In 1986, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman hired the eminent historian Ronald Spector (now a Professor at George Washington University) to revitalize the history program. But that was 25 years ago and the Navy’s leadership needs to consider taking a step along the same lines. In this connection, a report prepared by History Associates Inc. in 2000 for Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig remains as relevant today as it was then to the task of recognizing the value of naval history for the service itself and the general public. In the meantime, the Navy ought to find an installation where its historical treasures can be housed safely and made accessible to researchers without undue interruption.
William Burr is a Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive where he directs the Nuclear Documentation Project.
Comments by Larry Berman, Georgia State University
I am not surprised that the Navy’s Inspector General has produced a scathing report on the Naval History and Heritage Command’s management. I have benefitted from research funding (the Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper Research Grant) that the Command provided in 2010, but that did not offset the negative impression I developed of the Command’s leadership long before then.
Several years ago, I began working on a biography of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the controversial Chief of Naval Operations during 1970-1974. Zumwalt left a substantial collection of his official CNO papers at the Operational Archives. I began my research in January 2008. Unfortunately, it started out badly because Navy contractors were beginning to re-review formerly open files under the Kyl-Lott amendment. Even though I was researching unclassified files in the Zumwalt collection, on the second day of my research, the archivists confiscated the copies that I had made that day and asked me to return other copies that I had previously made because they might contain nuclear secrets. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service wanted to make sure that they did not and asked me if I would sign a “Classified Information Non-Disclosure Agreement” but on the advice of my lawyer I refused because there was no guarantee that any notes I took or documents I copied would ever get properly declassified so I could use them for my project. The NSCIS agent then asked me to turn over my notes. I did and they were never returned to me.
The Operational Archives then cut off my access to the unclassified files altogether because they had to undergo a page-by-page review in the event they included a nuclear secret. I then learned that government security reviewers can waive Kyl-Lot review requirements for material that is “highly unlikely” to contain nuclear secrets. Plainly, there was leeway to waive excessive review but the Command’s managers would not stand up for researchers. I wonder how much this cost the taxpayers.
I tried to persuade the Archive management to conduct an expedited review of files that were unlikely to include nuclear information, such as on race relations, retention studies and racial incidents at sea, but that request was refused, also on Kyl-Lott grounds. Then I filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The Archives had initially declared the Zumwalt finding aid to be “classified” in order to dissuade me from filing my FOIA, but I pointed that that trying to discourage a researcher from filing a FOIA was a violation of DoD policy. I needed to see key files on Zumwalt’s years in the high command. At first I asked whether the Navy would do what the National Archives in College Park had done: a “review under demand” procedure where researchers could ask for expedited Kyl-Lott review of specific files. But the Command refused to allow that.
Having no other recourse in April 2009 I filed a blanket FOIA with the Navy Archives, for folder lists for 14 boxes of the Zumwalt Personal Papers used for writing his memoir ON WATCH, folder lists for Zumwalt’s CNO office 00 files (the central files of the CNO, 1970-1974), all documents and materials in approximately 300 containers of Zumwalt’s Personal papers, and all documents withheld from me on my first two days of research in the archive. As a matter of course, and within my rights as a FOIA requester, I asked for a waiver of fees on the grounds that disclosure of the information was in the public interest and likely to contribute to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.
The FOIA was referred to the Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command. In July 2009, the director informed me that my request for a fee waiver had been denied. The estimated cost for conducting a FOIA review of approximately 295,000 pages would be $44,235. I was somewhat bemused to read, “Please notify my office if you agree to pay these estimated costs and we will immediately continue processing your request.”
It was clear to me that the Navy History and Heritage Command was intent on denying me access to the Zumwalt materials and had stooped to the lowest level of subterfuge by concluding that a book about the Admiral was not in the public interest. This meant that I had to file an appeal with the Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG), the Navy’s office for resolving legal issues involving military operations, organization, and personnel. In my appeal letter, I documented a pattern of procedural deceit and non-compliance intended to thwart my research, focusing on the denial of folder lists and finding aides. I closed with the following plea: “I beseech the JAG appeal officers to recognize the broad public interest that will result in disclosure of the requested information.”
On October 9, 2009, a letter arrived from Captain M.G. Laverdiere, JAGC, U.S. Navy, Deputy Assistant Judge Advocate general (General Litigation) which included this language: “I grant your appeal.” The Navy’s lawyers had overruled the History and Heritage Command by finding that the “disclosure of the information was clearly in the public interest and likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of government.” The Command was informed that I had met the criteria for a waiver of fees and they were instructed to process my FOIA immediately.
The JAG’s ruling had ripple effects throughout the chain of command. The FOIA coordinator and archivist in NHHC’s Histories and Archives Division began copying whatever responsive records were available and expedited the review of CNO materials, meaning those unclassified and not exempt from release would be made available to me. I received folder lists and made several research trips to the archive. Certain materials still needed to undergo the Kyl-Lott review. I was given no date for when that would begin Using the limited amount of material that the Archives made available, along with access to the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech where Zumwalt had given his personal papers, I was able to draw my portrait of Admiral Zumwalt’s remarkable journey through life. I envy the next generation of historians who should have greater access to the records that rightfully belong to the public.
There is one final sad exchange in my story for access to the materials and which explains why the IG report came as no surprise. In November 2011, Captain Jeffrey L. Gaffney, Deputy Director of the Naval History & Heritage Command, informed me that that I would no longer have access to materials:”we cannot maintain the collection in the environmental conditions that it requires to prevent mold and other deterioration. This was pointed out to us very clearly by a recent Inspector General’s visit which cataloged our problems and brought them to the attention of the highest Navy leadership…The bad inspection results, our duty of stewardship of the collection, and a plus-up [increase] in our budget … together pushed us to make hard decisions about the preservation of the collection. It needed to be moved to proper storage and it had to be done immediately, so we struck while the fire was hot and Navy leadership was ready to support us. Unfortunately, preparing this huge collection (4.7 miles of shelving) for movement necessitates inventory and other preparation which takes up the time of our archivists. In order to preserve the collection for future naval historians, we have to curtail the availability temporarily. The collection will be moved next year to a temporary facility where we will still be able to access it, although not with the ease we are used to.”
In light of my experience it is essential that the Navy provides new leadership to the History and Heritage Command. The new leadership needs to be more sensitive to the needs of researchers and to find ways to establish the right balance between openness and security requirements. It is imperative, however, that the Navy finds a better home for its priceless Archives. Wherever that is, I hope that researchers are treated better than I was.
Larry Berman, Founding Dean of the Honors College, Georgia State University and Professor Emeritus, UC Davis. In October 2012 Harper will publish ZUMWALT: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt. Jr.
COMMENTS ON NAVY HISTORY
The Navy History and Heritage Command is challenged today but that is not very different from what its situation has been for many years. What is perplexing is that the problems have accumulated over a lengthy period and the margin now is thinner than it has ever been. Perhaps high-level concern, suggested by the fact that the Navy’s Inspector General was ordered to carry out this inspection, is an indication of better things to come, but only action will make the difference. The jury remains out on that, and in a climate of expected Pentagon budget reductions it will become increasingly difficult to make the investments required to rectify the growing problems.
Due to its nature the Inspector General (IG) report hardly begins to convey the extent of the problems facing the U.S. Navy’s history program. The IG is concerned with the command’s compliance with various department regulations and directives, with personnel and quality of life issues, and with important Navy initiatives. Only a small fraction of the IG report comments on that which is of primary concern to the American public, which is access to the Navy’s story.
The report describes alarming defects in Navy History facilities which threaten the artifacts and records that need safeguarding, and a huge backlog in terms of records preservation for its precious holdings. For artifacts and art the Navy estimates that backlog at 30 years, and for records at 68 years.
These are stunning figures. But the IG report fails to convey the flavor or extent of the problems that follow from years of underinvestment combined with a growing mountain of directives that demanded immediate response. Larry Berman’s story of his efforts to obtain simple access to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s papers is more illuminating. The flap of the moment always supersedes the long-term programs, with the shortfalls magnified by resource constraints. After 9/11 there was a drive to extract from the files and re-classify records that might somehow be deemed useful to terrorists—down to reports of tanker sinkings by U-Boats in the North Atlantic in World War II. Who knows how many man-years were added to the records backlog by that absurd diversion? And flaps can be of the most prosaic kind. One of my less-preferred recollections is of the time my telephone conversation with a colleague at the then-Naval Historical Center was interrupted by an all-hands-on-deck call for everyone there to go save the books and artifacts in the center’s library, where water was streaming in from leaks in the roof —a direct result of lack of upkeep attributable to scarce resources.
Navy History has cut back personnel steadily. The photo archive used to have several experts on staff. Now there is only one. The facility now operates only part of the day, on some days of the week. When, a few months ago, I sought to consult the photo archive to help illustrate a project I have been working on, I could not even get my emails and phone calls returned. Overburdened staff means that service to the American public becomes increasingly problematical.
Unfortunately, the Navy has tried to meet the challenge by further restricting its goals. It has already stopped producing official history books, substituting less comprehensive products such as pamphlets. Its official history of the Vietnam War was never completed past 1965. The newer series of “Navy in Asia” pamphlets helps fill the gap–and many of them are quite good–but none have the weight or authority of an official history volume. The IG report itself notes that many Navy field commands have failed to continue feeding Navy History periodic operational history reports as they are supposed to do. At some point the stream of raw data required to fuel good history may dry to a trickle.
The History and Heritage Command has also tried to reduce the burden by eliminating records. A few months ago I had occasion to look up data on certain U.S. aircraft carriers and their activities in the mid-1950s, only to discover that records from a period following the Korean War through the early 1960s no longer exist. I shudder to think that notes I made thirty years ago may be the only surviving documentation for these activities—and that the records can no longer be accessed. William Burr refers to missing records in his introduction. Records preservation issues only further complicate the overall situation—and that assumes that records are, in fact, extant. From the standpoint of the American public, and that of historians seeking to document the Navy’s history, the situation is dire in the extreme.
The Navy probably thought, when it merged its museum operations with the Naval Historical Center at the end of 2008, that it was broadening the resource stream for the service’s efforts to preserve its history. But that could not happen because the Navy leadership made the Command responsible for the upkeep of ten museums plus maintenance of the historic ship U.S.S. Constitution, the biggest artifact of all, located in Boston harbor. Add to that the “heritage” function of public outreach—the organization is currently commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 as well as other events—and this becomes a great deal to accomplish on a 2012 budget of $38 million. That figure, it might be added, is almost a fifty percent increase over Navy History’s previous funding level. The building repairs and improvements which the IG report finds are necessary by themselves may cost more than the unit’s entire budget. In short the “crisis” at Navy History is a real one.
John Prados is a Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive where he directs the Vietnam and Intelligence Documentation Projects and co-directs its Iraq Documentation Project.