Unredacted Statements by Richard Nixon Raise Questions About Declassification Process
A recent declassification action by the U.S. National Archives (NARA) exposes the problem of over-classification and the failings of the declassification review process. In response to a mandatory review appeal by the National Security Archive, NARA released in full the once-heavily excised record of a conversation between President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 22 December 1973.* Prepared by deputy national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, the record of conversation shows a vintage Nixon. Speaking not long after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Middle East peace was a paramount concern for the national security bureaucracy, he gave a tour d’horizon of current issues and developments. Explaining his thinking about the U.S role in the world Nixon said that some nations “matter” and others do not. Believing that U.S. elites were losing their backbones, Nixon worried that United States elites would “go the way of the British, French, Italians, and maybe even the Germans” and abandon world power. “Unless some of the elite start to speak up, we will be finished in 5-10 years.”
All of these Nixon comments and others had been excised in the original release, which is why the National Security Archive filed an appeal. Certainly some of what Nixon said was belittling and condescending: he called Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a “left-wing clown” and said that the “Prime Minister of Chad doesn’t matter” because Chad had no power. Nevertheless, “we treat them [sic] nice.” On the European Community, Nixon declared that a “united Europe is premature. The Europeans are essentially parochial.” On Japan, he observed that the “Japanese-American alliance is essential if the Japanese are not to make a deal with the Soviet Union against China; they could possibly make a deal with China but that is dangerous without our help.”
These statements had also been classified before the successful appeal. Much of what had been excised was unsurprising or innocuous—the Soviets and Chinese are “antagonistic toward us,” Chinese and Soviet leaders “come from the soil”—so it is puzzling why the initial reviewer concluded that releasing Nixon’s statements could damage U.S. relations with another government, one of the executive order criteria for withholding information. (By contrast, a racist statement about Afro-Americans was left alone because it was not subject to the executive order). But even if this document had been declassified 10 or 20 years ago it could not have done any harm to U.S. foreign relations. There was nothing secret that truly needed protection.
NARA did the right thing by declassifying this document, but the initial review needs further scrutiny. Apparently the reviewer was not aware that the declassified record including the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series, is littered with candid statements by Richard Nixon (for example, the various derogatory references to Indira Gandhi in http://static.history.state.gov/frus/frus1969-76v11/pdf/frus1969-76v11.pdf/. While declassification reviewers cannot know everything that has been declassified, if they are working with high-level documents from a particular period they should know something about the declassified record from those years. In this way, reviewers might be able to avoid mistakes that have to be appealed.
Faulty decisions that have to be appealed constitute a waste of time and resources, by the National Archives and government agencies and by the requesters who take the time to prepare an appeal. It is not clear that new guidance would eliminate poor decisions and no one wants to add another layer of review. But somewhere, there is a need for a reality check to minimize such problems.
Declassification reviewers, like members of any skilled occupation, need to go through continual education. I wonder if the National Archives or the agencies make it a practice to inform initial reviewers when a decision on an appeal has overturned their decisions or recommendation. Such a practice could be useful for declassification reviewers and help them make better future decisions. With public confidence in the secrecy system already low, the Archives and other agencies need to take such steps to establish a more credible system that reduces overclassification.
*The brackets throughout the document are not original, and indicate which portions of the document were previously excised. The original document can be located at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, 1973-1977, box 3, December 22, 1973 – Nixon, Schlesinger, Joint Chiefs.