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Is the NSAM Leaning Now?

April 23, 2011

President John F. Kennedy discussing Laos during a press conference at the State Department Auditorium, 23 March 1961, a few weeks after he signed off on NSAM 29. (Photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.)

Here’s a little more on the distressing declassification story of John F. Kennedy’s March 1961 secret directive on Laos called NSAM-29. The Archive recently posted our Electronic Briefing Book (No. 342) on The Last NSAM Standing,” describing how different copies of this document had been treated quite arbitrarily by government censors over a period of many years. Courtesy of an alert reader we now have yet another example of the excess secrecy that has been applied to this presidential directive.

Author and historian William J. Rust found his copy of NSAM-29 at the National Archives while doing research for his forthcoming book The American Experience in Laos, 1954-1961. Rust encountered the document in the records of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. Created by statute (PL 102-526) to gather and open to the public all manner of government documentary evidence pertinent to Kennedy’s presidency and his assassination, the Review Board existed through the middle 1990s and completed its work in 1997. The copy of NSAM-29 in the Review Board’s files was taken from the Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (known at the National Archives as “Records Group 218” or RG-218).

Found by William J. Rust at NARA. Declassified by the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board

The first point to make in connection with the government’s redaction of this copy of Kennedy’s Laos directive is that under its founding statute, the Kennedy Review Board had considerable discretion to release information. In contrast to the standard procedure, which is that government agencies themselves decide what to release, the Kennedy Board held the authority to open material in its own hands, and government agencies were in the position of having to argue to the board why some particular bit of information still needed to be secret. Sure enough, the secrecy mavens argued that NSAM-29 ought to remain secret, and, when the Kennedy Board decided otherwise, the CIA argued for—and won—two exemptions.

These can be seen plainly in the copies of NSAM-29 we have posted in the EBB. The first of these items is in paragraph 3, where Kennedy’s directive specifies the CIA as an agency with which the Department of Defense was to coordinate the selection of helicopter pilots to fly under cover in Laos.

The second item appears in paragraph 9, which instructs the U.S. government to approach Thailand and get it to send up to four Thai artillery to fight alongside U.S. allies in Laos. The specific language deleted, after NSAM-29’s mention of immediate availability, was “105mm batteries (Thai soldiers, equipment, and supplies).”

In 1998, when government declassification authorities released the Joint Chiefs of Staff chronology we posted in the EBB, they kept entirely secret seven of the seventeen instructions that the Kennedy Review Board had already released to the public, plus parts of two others. In a separate declassification action the same year which actually opened a copy of the presidential directive in the Kennedy Papers, government censors released the substance of the instruction to approach Thailand for artillery but kept secret all references to the CIA that had been opened by the Kennedy Review Board.

As recounted in our Electronic Briefing Book, in 2002 the U.S. government gave up the pretense of secrecy in every point of NSAM-29 except the single item, noted above, about the Pentagon and CIA coordinating on helicopter pilots.

The release of this document by the Kennedy Review Board makes even less appropriate the complete denial of the document when a Freedom of Information Act request for it was made in 2004. How many government officials spent hours immersed in making these ridiculous decisions and how much taxpayer money went to pay for this betrayal of the public interest?

We are thinking of starting a betting pool on whether the copy of Kennedy’s Laos directive that is filed in the Joint Chiefs’ Records Group 218 is still secret. Any takers?

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