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The Department of State Accuses the National Security Archive of “Dredging up the Past;” Won’t Declassify the Accusation.

June 29, 2012

One of my favorite wikileaks cables is Montevideo 001179 from December 2006.  In this cable, the Ambassador to Uruguay, Frank Baxter, describes my colleague Carlos Osorio, and the National Security Archive, as “one of the most important declassifiers of the State Department’s private documents.”  What a compliment!

But what was not a compliment was Baxter’s assertion that by testifying about former Uruguayan President Juan Bordaberry’s role in a 1972 auto-coup, two political assassinations, and nine disappearances, Osorio was complicit in “dredging up the past,” helping “the anti-US propaganda machine [rumble] more loudly,” and painting the US “as the intellectual author of Plan Condor.”  (Operation Condor was an agreement between South American intelligence agencies to collude in the assassination of people considered leftist, ranging from militants to nuns.  Communication between the Southern Cone intelligence agencies was routed through “a  US communications installation in the Panama Canal Zone which cover[ed] all of Latin America.”)

After I read these accusations in the leaked cable, I wrote a post that refuted Baxter’s claims and explained the difference between “dredging up the past” and human rights accountability.  

Then, I filed a Mandatory Declassification Review request with the Department of State to see if it would disclose these views through official channels.

Today I got the result.  The Department of State declassified the first five paragraphs of the document (which were originally marked as unclassified), but completely censored the comments section –the meat of any cable– which was marked as confidential, the lowest level of classification.

According to the Executive Order that governs classification, “‘Confidential’ [classification] shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.”

Can you identify or describe the damage that these two paragraphs (ironically about declassified documents) could do to US national security?  Does the public (in America and abroad) have the right to know what the US State Department’s take on new revelations about The Dirty War and Operation Condor is?

“Dredging up the past” ???!!!

Donna DiPaolo, a declassification review authority, justified censoring this document by citing Executive Order 13526 1.4(D) which states that “identifiable or describable damage” to “foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources” would occur if she declassified the document.

Considering that this document has been in the public domain for almost two years, I find it hard to imagine that any “identifiable or describable damage” could occur with the document’s official declassification.  I’m convinced that this document could be released in full without harming US “national security,” even if had never been leaked by wikileaks.  Moreover, redacting information that is already in the public domain flags the most sensitive information for our potential adversaries and is counterproductive.  (I don’t think there was any truly sensitive information in this cable, however.)

At a minimum, declassification reviewers are required to complete a “line by line” review for segregability.  It appears DiPaolo may have attempted to save herself some time by simply censoring every paragraph marked classified (the entire comments section), rather than actually reviewing it for potential “identifiable and describable damage.”  This is a common –and incorrect– practice by declassification reviewers, government-wide.

Of course, we’ll be appealing this decision.  Fortunately, the Department of State’s Appeals Panel is probably the best in the government.  They very frequently release additional information.  (Here is one of my favorite examples.)  I’ll update with the result.  A key problem though, is that it appears that the “round one” reviewers are not informed about the types of information that the Appeals Panel (or the Interagency Classification Appeals Panel, for that matter) overturns and releases.  Thus the “round one” reviewers don’t change their declassification practices to release more information initially, and requesters and the State Department are then forced to expend time and resources on appealing incorrect classification decisions.

Finally, I must state that the Department of State has one of the best declass and FOIA shops in the government.  They process tons of requests, very quickly.  I’m sure they’ll continue their good work, and I hope they will continue to improve and release even more, line-by-line segregated, information initially.  In fact, due to their very good record, I probably would have even let this over-redaction slide  …If the censored portion wasn’t an ambassador accusing the National Security Archive of “dredging up the past.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Azel Mar permalink
    July 9, 2012 2:58 am

    what an excellent blog this is

    anyway, a question this post prompted in my mind — if one files a FOIA request, receives in return a heavily redacted document, can one file a MDR against that specific document or am I misunderstanding some part of the process?

    • Nate Jones permalink*
      July 13, 2012 3:35 pm

      Yes. But generally not until two years after.

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