“Redaction Poetry” and Overclassification at the US National Archives
Last week the Foundation for the National Archives (an independent organization that “generates financial and creative support” for the Archives and shares its address) launched an eyebrow raising promotion to celebrate National Poetry Month: selecting archival documents, censoring them, and calling it “redaction poetry.”
While celebrating poetry and attempting to bring attention to Archival holdings are noble goals (along with much more that the Archives Foundation does), this promotion has struck many who have struggled with the National Archives’ sputtering declassification and FOIA regimes1 as being in poor taste, considering the vast volumes of information held by NARA that remain withheld from public view, or improperly censored by the Archives’ National Declassification Center.
To highlight these problems, the National Security Archive has selected a few real life examples of “redaction poetry” where the declassifiers at NARA have failed.
Submission One: “Twice Released, Once Censored (by NARA)“
Recently, the National Archives responded to a 2004 mandatory declassification review (MDR) request (the ten year wait itself is a huge problem!) for records of the former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara from August 1961. We were surprised and upset to see that one key document, a long memorandum to President Kennedy endorsing the continued build-up of Minuteman ICBMs and Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles and accelerating the nuclear arms race, was fully redacted. The letter from NARA claimed that this fifty-plus-year-old document must be withheld as it contained: information on weapons of mass destruction, state of the art weapons technologies, war plans in effect, foreign relations, and national emergency preparedness plans.
If NARA’s claims on why the document must remain censored are true, then we are in big trouble. Because the document has already been released to the public. Twice. The memo was published in full or nearly in full almost twenty years ago, in 1996. It appeared in the State Department’s historical series Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume VIII National Security Policy (documents 46). Moreover, years before its appearance in the FRUS publication, the Defense Department declassified the McNamara memorandum in response to a FOIA request. That earlier release has a few details that were excised in the FRUS version and vice versa, but both were substantially declassified.
Who needs Redaction Poetry when you can have the real thing?!
Submission Two: “Ignoring the Words of
Mother Goose FRUS“
After the NS Archive published information about the above censorship problems at NARA, Washington Post columnists Al Kamen and Colby Itkowitz gave the redactors at the National Declassification Center some good advice: “Check the FRUS!” Unfortunately they did not heed it. This week the NS Archive published another bit of real life redaction poetry: A 1961 report on the possibilities of cutting off the production of fissionable material –despite its conclusions already having been published in FRUS– was redacted in full, with NARA’s National Declassification Center letter citing alleged harm to U.S. national security, war plans, foreign relations, and “state of the art application of technology.”
As my colleague Bill Burr (who submitted both above requests) wrote, NARA must “take measures to ensure that substandard work does not blemish its good name.”
Submission Three: “Where The
Sidewalk Declassification Credibility Ends”
As recently as last year, the NDC was complicit in attempting to censor how the Cuban Missile Crisis ended. A DOD report recently released by the NDC astonishingly excised the word “Turkey” 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 (“Turkey”) is a fact any high school student needs to know to pass their history class, but the NDC redacted the word, ostensibly on national security grounds.
A declassification regime so rigid that declassifiers spend precious person hours redacting facts like this is a declassification system much in need of reform. The National Archives and National Declassification Center need to say so and stop allowing the broken classification system to obscure our history.
Of course, overclassification at NARA is not entirely the Archives’ fault. As every letter NARA sends in response to a FOIA request says, the Archives has “limited authority to release national security or other sensitive information.”2
But the National Archives is not living up to its mission to “strengthen our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records” by providing agencies such cover to censor the release of documents in NARA’s possession. Instead, the Archives should challenge the redaction decisions of the agencies it is tasked to oversee, not empower these decisions.
Good first steps would be to stop the wasteful page-level, and equity re-review at the National Declassification Center, which would help end the NDC’s “declassification as usual” mindset. This is the only way to improve its wastefully and insultingly low 61 percent declassification rate of historic (older than 25 years) documents.
I know well that Archivist David Ferriero and the entire staff of NARA care more about safeguarding our history and providing access to information than (probably) any other agency. That is why the above classification errors (and millions of others) justified under NARA’s good name engender such a response from historians, journalists, and open government advocates. It’s also why the Archives Foundation’s “Redaction Poetry” contest, which could be perceived of making light of such a serious problem, ruffled so many feathers. Ideally, the Foundation’s contest will bring attention to the severe overclassification problems at the Archives.
To its credit, this week (Friday April 10 at 10:00 AM) the Archives is also hosting a forum including the Archivist of the United States, the Director of the National Declassification Center, and other experts (including myself) to discuss “NDC prioritization practices and ongoing declassification progress.” Hopefully this forum will yield tangible reforms to NARA’s declassification process.
Finally, I’d like to conclude by reminiscing about another episode including games, overclassification, the National Declassification Center, and the National Archives. One of the first public endeavors of the National Declassification Center was to officially declassify the Pentagon Papers. While some questioned the optics, necessity, and use of resources to declassify a history available at any public library, the NDC celebrated the declassification as an important milestone.
At one May 2011 event at the Archives, the Archivist of the United States heralded what he viewed to be a success, announcing that the project would soon be completed –except for eleven words that an agency other than NARA demanded be redacted. Historians, he joked, could play Madlibs with the redactions in this publicly available, 40-year-old document.
Fortunately though, NARA ultimately did the correct thing and released the entire document, unredacted, ostensibly over the objections of another agency after an alert Presidential Librarian had warned that the redacted words were publicly available in the House Armed Service Committee edition of the Papers… and that my colleague at the National Security Archive John Prados would “parade this discovery like a politician on the 4th of July.“
Redaction Madlibs? Declassification Poetry? Fine. So long as the games bring attention to the unacceptable problem of overclassification at the US National Archives.
2. One possible solution that has been discussed is changing Executive Order 13526, or its successor (this EO governs classification, declassification, the NDC, and the Declassification Appeals board) to grant the National Archives further explicit declassification powers. Unfortunately when president Obama explicitly granted the National Declassification Center the ability to end referral re-reviews in most circumstances, the NDC refused to use this new power, continuing its inefficient “declassification as usual.“↩