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Déjà vu All Over Again

April 3, 2015
Even though major portions of the Perkins Report were published in a State Department FRUS series, NARA withheld the report in its entirety.

Even though major portions of the Perkins Report were published in a State Department FRUS series, NARA withheld the report in its entirety.

Once again the Department of Defense (DoD) has denied an archival document whose substance can be found in the State Department’s historical series Foreign Relations of the United States. The role played by the National Archives in this episode raises troubling questions about the relationship between the National Declassification Center and the agencies in the archival declassification process.

Request for Perkins Panel Report

This episode began with a recent decision letter from the National Archives concerning a mandatory declassification review (MDR) request that the National Security Archive filed in February 2010.  The Archive sought release of a report, produced in April 1961, by the Perkins Panel on the “Military Implications of a Cutoff of Fissionable Materials Production.”  Chaired by James Perkins, a vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, the panel wrote its report as part of the ongoing consideration of a proposal to halt the production of fissile material.  The cut-off was a major element in the nuclear disarmament diplomacy of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations—as it has been for more recent presidents.  Since 2006, a global committee–the International Panel on Fissile Materials devoted itself to finding ways to reduce and control fissile material stockpiles as steps toward nuclear disarmament.

When the MDR request was filed, significant information about the Perkins Panel report had been in the declassified public record since the early 1990s; because of its historical importance, the conclusions
of the Perkins Panel report were published in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States historical series, the volume on Arms Control and Disarmament for 1961-1963. Given this, it seemed reasonable to assume that the earlier publication in the FRUS would serve as a guide for security review for the rest of the report.  Some atomic energy information would be excised but I thought it possible that most of the report could be released, especially in light of previous declassifications of Joint Chiefs of Staff  and other reports from the early 1960s about the cut-off proposal.

Defense Department Decision

The results were not what I expected, but in light of recent events, were not astonishing. According to the National Archives letter, signed off by the National Declassification Center (NDC), the Defense Department had exempted the Perkins report in its entirety because of: 1) alleged harm to U.S. national security (war plans, foreign relations, and “state of the art application of technology”), and 2) Atomic Energy Act restrictions against the release of nuclear weapons information.  This was the decision, despite the earlier declassification in the FRUS. Readers of Unredacted will recall a similar problem when the Pentagon massively excised another  Kennedy administration document, a report by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara from September 1961 which also had appeared in the FRUS.

The same page – page 5 – from the same document, released 3 different times. From Left to Right: 2014 National Archives release with Department of Defense redactions, 1996 Foreign Relations of the United States release, and circa 1996 Department of Defense Freedom of Information Act Release.

The same page – page 5 – from the same document, released 3 different times. From Left to Right: 2014 National Archives release with Department of Defense redactions, 1996 Foreign Relations of the United States release, and circa 1996 Department of Defense Freedom of Information Act Release.

The careless review of the Perkins Report leads to troubling questions. For example, how could declassification of the report imperil U.S. foreign relations or war plans? Why do DoD’s declassification authorities have such difficulty conducting credible reviews of historical documents? Are they aware of the activities of other U.S. government bodies such as the State Department in preparing collections of declassified historical documents? If so why do they not take the FRUS into account? Is it possible that they believe that the good faith declassification review efforts of the past have no value? Is the declassification system going backwards when information that could be declassified in the 1990s is now considered exempt?
Implications for the NDC

DoD has been a source of other suspect declassification decisions, for example, the recent exemption of hundreds of pages of documents concerning the Israeli nuclear program from State Department records at NARA, notwithstanding ISCAP’s recent release of documents from the same period. Another recent inane Defense Department decision includes several astonishing excisions, including one from Nikita Khrushchev’s “publicly announced message” on 27 October 1962, where he proposed removing Soviet missiles from Cuba if the United States “will remove its analogous means from [excised].” What Khrushchev said was “Turkey,” a fact that was disclosed years ago, but on national security grounds the Pentagon would not declassify that word in a statement that was made to the world.

The Defense Department however, is not the only responsible party. Unfortunately, these problems also reflect on NARA’s National Declassification Center under whose auspices the Defense Department review took place.  I have no idea whether there were any behind-the-scenes debates at the NDC over these decisions or whether NDC staffers were aware that relevant information appears in the FRUS. It is possible that a heavy work load discourages due diligence at some points. Nevertheless, the NDC is in the unfortunate role of being a facilitator for poor decisions by other agencies. This is regrettable because such decisions run against the grain of the worthy NARA staffers who are trying to make a complex and out-of-date declassification system work.

The serious problems with the declassification review of the Perkins Panel Report may not be the last such episode unless the NDC takes measures to ensure that substandard work does not blemish its good
name.  NARA staffers ought to intervene when an agency recommends exempting documents altogether or excising fifty percent or more of their content. In such instances, NARA should undertake a quality review to determine whether the agency is making a reasonable case. Such procedures could apply when the records at issue are twenty-five years old or older.  As the NDC is unlikely to take such action on its own, it would probably take a decision by the Archivist of the United or even the Information Security Oversight Office to grant such authority.  In any event, NARA and the NDC need to follow the advice of The Washington Post’s Al Kamen -“check the FRUS”- so they can raise the credibility of their declassification review process.

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