Declassified Documents Shed Light on the Effect of UN Decision to Withdraw Peacekeeping Troops from Rwanda at Height of Genocide
By: Clara Fisher
Today the National Security Archive is posting 85 documents from the Clinton Presidential Library that shed new light on the US decision to call for the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping troops (UNAMIR) from Rwanda. The documents show that the withdrawal decision was made by the US before Belgian peacekeepers were killed, and demonstrate that the UN Security Council’s passing of Resolution 912 on April 21, 1994, to withdraw a majority of UN troops, was the result of heavy US influence. The documents also reveal the high-level discussions, deliberations, and trade-offs considered by international leaders during the lead-up to the Security Council vote, and underscore how the decision was made divorced from the reality on the ground. Today’s posting highlights the effect that this decision had on UNAMIR Force Commander, Major-General Roméo Dallaire and his troops.
From the start of its mandate in October 1993, UNAMIR was undersupplied, underfunded, and under supported. After a vote on April 21, 1994, by the UN Security Council to withdraw UNAMIR peacekeepers, support decreased even as the situation on the ground became worse. Cables from Dallaire to the UN show the increasing desperation and hopelessness experienced by the force commander and his troops as they attempted to save as many Rwandan lives as they could amidst the deteriorating humanitarian situation. General Dallaire was aware of the political and logistical difficulties of keeping UNAMIR troops in Rwanda, and of the very real danger his troops were in under their current Chapter VI mandate which prohibited them from engaging militarily. On April 17, Dallaire sent a military assessment to New York, stating:
Maintaining the status quo on manpower under these severe and adverse conditions is wasteful, dangerously casualty-causing and demoralizing to the troops. Either UNAMIR gets changes in its parameter of works in order to get into the thick of things (with more resources), or it starts to thin out in order to avoid unnecessary losses and reduce the overhead and administrative burden to the negotiation process for a ceasefire and peace.
Dallaire, however, was also cognizant of the danger to Rwandan citizens if the UN withdrew the peacekeepers entirely. On April 20, Dallaire sent a cable explaining his opinion regarding Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s proposed options for UNAMIR, and reminded the UN, “For humanitarian reasons, it would be unethical to leave this terrible scene without at least giving a last hard and determined chance for a cease fire and an embryo of a relief organization in country.”
Two months after the UN had withdrawn the majority of UNAMIR troops, and despite approval in May 1994 of UNAMIR II, which would have enlarged UNAMIR by 5,500 troops on May 17, neither new troops nor supplies had arrived in Rwanda. The troops would not arrive until mid-August. On June 20, Dallaire wrote a frank and desperate cable to the UN, laying out in bare terms his assessment of the situation and his opinion of ongoing UN planning:
Since the passing of Resolution 918 on 17, May 94, UNAMIR has patiently waited for its expansion in order to fan out and help stop these massacres, offer humanitarian security assistance to the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rwandese and be in a viable/effective position to influence and implement a ceasefire. The ineffective reaction to meeting the critical needs of the Mission in order to implement its mandate has been nothing less than scandalous from the word go, and even bordering on the irresponsible to dangerous toward the personnel of the Mission here in theatre. This has directly led to the loss of many more Rwandese lives, [and] to the casualties amongst our troops.
Dallaire continues, “At the moment UNAMIR cannot pursue a Chapter VII mandate and is just holding on militarily (all 8 x BTR 80s are unserviceable now) and basically surviving logistically (we have had no fuel for 3 days).”
General Dallaire usually ended his cables to the UN by politely sending his regards. In this cable, however, the General was so disheartened he ended, “At this point FC finds regards very difficult to express.”
Unfortunately, Dallaire’s hope for UNAMIR was never fulfilled. The genocide did not end until the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), toppled the last government-supported extremist Hutu Power stronghold in mid-July and declared the civil war over.
Dallaire later sent his opinion of UN debates in comparison to the situation on-the ground to the UN; “I acknowledge that this mission is a logistical nightmare for your [headquarters], but that is nothing compared to the living hell that has surrounded us…..although many fine words have been pronounced by all, including members of the Security Council, the tangible effort…has been totally and completely ineffective.”
These declassified documents provide insight into the complexities of the international community’s decision-making process during one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Continued and increased access to these documents is crucial to learning from past mistakes and implementing better preventative policies today and in the future.
 Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 382.
DOJ Updates FOIA Regulations, Finding “No-Fly” List Status Now Possible, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 4/16/2015
The Department of Justice (DOJ) updated its FOIA regulations last week in response to public comments regarding its 2011 draft FOIA regulations. In 2011 the DOJ proposed changing their regulations to allow some federal agencies to falsely state that no records exist when the requested documents fit within certain guidelines, thereby authorizing agencies to willfully deceive FOIA requesters on a case-by-case basis. The proposed changes spurred serious concerns from the open government community about the necessity and, more importantly, the legality of such a rule change. OIP Director Melanie Pustay responded to the criticisms during a March 2012 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by saying, “some people misinterpreted what we were trying to do, misconstrued some of the provisions, and didn’t necessarily understand some of the fee guidelines.” The DOJ’s latest regulations, happily, do not contain such provisions, and instead contain improvements, including explicitly stating that news organizations operating solely on the Internet qualify as “representatives of the news media,” making them exempt from search fees.
The DOJ recently submitted documents in a court filing in conjunction with a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that state U.S. citizens and residents can find out if they are on the “no-fly” list, and “possibly” obtain a summary of the reasons why. Prior to this, individuals could appeal to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) if unable to board a plane, but could not find out their status on the “no-fly” list, a process the case’s judge called “wholly ineffective.” An August 5, 2014, Intercept article, which cites classified government documents concerning the National Counterterrorism Center’s databases, shows, among other things, “that 47,000 people — including 800 Americans — were on the government’s no-fly list, while an additional 16,000 — including 1,200 Americans — were on the ‘selectee’ list.”
Increased attention is being paid to the FBI’s use of non-disclosure agreements to prevent police forces across the U.S. from revealing their use of “Stingray” cell phone tracking technology. According to The Guardian, non-disclosure agreements that have come to light in Florida, New York and Maryland “show federal authorities effectively binding local law enforcement from disclosing any information – even to judges – about the cellphone dragnet technology, its collection capabilities or its existence. In an arrangement that shocked privacy advocates and local defense attorneys, the secret pact also mandates that police notify the FBI to push for the dismissal of cases if technical specifications of the devices are in danger of being revealed in court. The agreement also contains a clause forcing law enforcement to notify the FBI if freedom of information requests are filed by members of the public or the media for such information, ‘in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels’.”
Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) has agreed to continue the ongoing review of every U.S. intelligence program begun by the previous chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca). The review was launched in October 2013 after documents leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed the agency was monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, is scheduled to be completed by September 2015, and aims to “improve congressional oversight of the government’s sprawling global spying effort.”
The New York Times recently obtained emails showing the FBI agent that led the investigation into four of the seven Blackwater contractors involved in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, which left 17 people dead, “became convinced that political appointees in the Justice Department were intentionally undermining the case.” The records show that senior DOJ officials initially balked at bringing two machine-gun charges against the contractors, which each “carried mandatory 30-year prison sentences”; prosecutors ultimately only brought one machine-gun charge. The four contractors were sentenced this week; one receiving life in prison and the other three receiving 30-year sentences.
The federal FOIA ombuds, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), recently published an assessment of NARA’s Special Access and FOIA Program, which processes FOIA requests for archival federal records in the DC area. OGIS found that NARA takes approximately nine months to process simple FOIA requests (fewer than 200 pages), and approximately 3.5 years to process complex ones (for more than 200 pages and most requests that include classified records). The report also contains a lot of sound recommendations, including encouraging NARA (and other agencies) to “regularly provide links to the most recently posted documents either on its FOIA Electronic Reading Room, or on a webpage that has heavy traffic, so the public is aware of recently released documents,” provide the NARA FOIA team with clear information regarding the status of the agency’s FOIA regulations, and explore “how OGIS might be able to assist with strategies for closing some of the oldest pending cases.” Hopefully NARA will incorporate OGIS’ astute recommendations into their FOIA program, as well as other improvements – like ending the wasteful referral and consultation re-review process..
The Justice Department recently sent a memo to all of its employees reminding them never to solicit prostitutes. The memo was sent in the wake of revelations that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers had “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by a Colombian drug cartel. The memo states, “Regardless of whether prostitution is legal or tolerated in a particular jurisdiction, soliciting prostitutes creates a greater demand for human trafficking victims and a consequent increase in the number of minor and adult persons trafficked into commercial sex slavery.”
The CIA has declassified an additional 99 documents on its plan to publish Doctor Zhivago in Russian for first time in 1958. The CIA declassified 130 documents last April concerning the agency’s instrumental role in publishing and distributing Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” in the Soviet Union in an effort to stir political unrest. One document notes, “[t]his book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”
Declassified documents show that NASA has, since its creation in 1958, been involved in furnishing cover stories for covert operations, monitoring Soviet missile tests, and supplying weather data to the U.S. military. Be sure to check out the latest posting on the Archive’s website for the whole story behind NASA’s secret relationship with civilian and national security space programs.
The latest posting from the Archive’s Nuclear Vault highlights declassified documents concerning the Eisenhower administration’s discovery of the secret Israeli nuclear program. Documents published in this collection shed light on a particularly notable intelligence failure: how Washington missed warning signs that the Israelis had a nuclear project underway, but also how the U.S. belatedly realized what the Israelis were doing, and how Eisenhower and his senior advisers reacted to this discovery.
This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with Cuba’s removal from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in mind. It is a collection of documents from 1975 on the origins of “baseball diplomacy.” The documents, ranging from unclassified letters to declassified secret cables and high-level State Department memoranda, reveal the efforts of then-commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, and his counterparts in Cuba, along with aides to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to arrange a game between U.S. and Cuban teams in 1975.
Salvadoran General Deported from U.S. for Command Role in Human Rights Crimes During El Salvador Civil War
Violations Cited in Justice Department Ruling Include Torture of Salvadoran Citizens, Murder of Four American Churchwomen, Among Others
By Alexandra Smith
Thursday, April 9, 2015—Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former chief of El Salvador’s National Guard and then Minister of Defense from 1979-89, was deported from Florida yesterday as a result of a precedent-setting decision by the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals, following 16 years of legal efforts by human rights groups against him.
In 1999, The Center for Justice and Accountability filed a case against Vides Casanova and another former defense minister, Gen. José Guillermo García, charging them with liability for the torture of three Salvadoran civilians under the “command responsibility” doctrine illustrating intellectual authorship. The case, Romagoza et al. v. Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova, cemented the legal authority of the command responsibility doctrine with a verdict demanding 54.6 million dollars in reparations from the two defendants.
But the Board of Immigration went well beyond the Romagoza case in finding against Vides Casanova. In its ruling, the Board cited the “totality of the record” as support for deportation, writing that as National Guard commander and then Minister of Defense,
[H]e participated in the acts of torture and extrajudicial killing of civilians in El Salvador, in that they took place while he was in command, he was aware of these abuses during or after the fact, and through both his personal interference with investigations and his inaction, he did not hold the perpetrators accountable.
Among the cases cited by the Board were the killing of four American churchwomen in 1980, and the 1981 “Sheraton Hotel” murders targeting a Salvadoran labor leader and two U.S. advisors to an American labor association. Both crimes were carried out by members of the National Guard.Over the years, the National Security Archive has contributed hundreds of declassified U.S. documents to the investigations against Vides Casanova, illustrating the general’s role in human rights violations throughout his tenure as a commander in the Salvadoran military and guard. Among the documents are United States Department of State cables and memoranda concerning the 1980 abduction and murder of the four churchwomen that reveal Vides Casanova’s attempts to cover up the crime. In his dispatches to Washington, Ambassador Robert E. White strongly condemned Vides and other elements within the security forces for their lack of cooperation in the murder investigation. As a result of the Center for Justice and Accountability’s continuing advocacy, the former general was indicted on two counts of immigration fraud in 2009. Trial hearings included testimony by three U.S. ambassadors, torture victims Pedro Daniel Alvarado and Juan Romagoza Arce, and expert witness Terry Karl, professor of political science at Stanford University, who used National Security Archive documents in her analysis.
The presiding immigration judge found General Vides Casanova to have “assisted or otherwise participated in” human rights crimes including the torture of Daniel Alvarado and Romagoza Arce, the killings of the head of the Salvadoran agrarian reform institute and two American labor advisors, and the killings of the four American churchwomen discussed above.
On March 11, the Board of Immigration Appeals decided to uphold the immigration judge’s decision under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Rather than affirming the defense argument that Vides Casanova could be deported only if determined to have taken “personal action” in facilitating the torture and killing described above, the Board of Immigration Appeals found the defendant guilty, according to Terry Karl, because Vides Casanova “1) had command over his troops, 2) knew or should have known what his subordinates were doing, and 3) failed to prevent egregious acts or punish his subordinates who committed such acts.” Although the defense appealed the Board’s decision, that appeal was denied.
Patty Blum of the Center for Justice and Accountability calls the ruling “very significant” because it marks the first time that the Board of Immigration Appeals has connected the intellectual authorship of human rights crimes with requisite deportation. The precedent-setting ruling will act as a benchmark for future cases, ensuring that those in command during a regime of human rights abuse are themselves seen to have participated in that abuse, and will not find a safe haven in the United States.
NARA to Host Forum Discussing NDC Prioritization Practices and Declassification Progress, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 4/9/2015
Last week the Foundation for the National Archives launched an eyebrow raising promotion to celebrate National Poetry Month: selecting archival documents, censoring them, and calling it “redaction poetry.” The promotion understandably ruffled some feathers considering the vast volumes of information held by NARA that remain withheld from public view, or improperly censored by the Archives’ National Declassification Center. National Security Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones says declassification poetry might serve a purpose…. as long as it brings attention to the unacceptable problem of overclassification at the U.S. National Archives.
To its credit, this week (Friday April 10 at 10:00 AM) NARA is hosting a forum including the Archivist of the United States, the Director of the National Declassification Center, and other experts (including the NS Archive’s Nate Jones and William Burr) to discuss “NDC prioritization practices and ongoing declassification progress.” Hopefully this forum will yield tangible reforms to NARA’s declassification process. The forum is open to the public so please take advantage and attend — it’s important to make your thoughts on these issues known to NARA.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is renewing efforts to access a national license plate tracking system just a year after scrapping its initial plan to build a similar system to catch fugitive illegal immigrants. Last year’s efforts were terminated after the Washington Post reported the program could “contain more than 1 billion records and could be shared with other law enforcement agencies, raising concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens who are under no criminal suspicion could be scrutinized.” The national license plate tracking plan was recently reintroduced, however, after the DHS completed a privacy impact assessment and determined not to build its own database or add data to an existing database. “Instead, it is seeking bids from companies that already gather the data to say how much they would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers”.
DHS recently told Congress in a written response to a Congressional query that it is “working on increasing its human intelligence-gathering capabilities at home and anticipates increasing its field collector/reporter personnel by 50 percent, from 19 to approximately 30, during the coming year.” The information comes after Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-GA) asked if the agency had enough HUMINT capabilities domestically and overseas “to counter the threats posed by state and non-state actors alike?”
New details are emerging about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s harvesting of Americans’ overseas calls (just a reminder, the DEA has also “initiated a massive national license plate reader program” that connects DEA license plate readers with local law enforcement agencies’ own plate readers around the country). It was reported in January that the DEA maintained a database of Americans’ outbound overseas call records, even if the callers were not involved in any criminal activity, for over a decade. New reports show the program lasted two decades and amassed billions of Americans’ calls – “virtually all” overseas calls – to as many as 116 other countries. The program wasn’t suspended until 2013.
The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the federal FOIA ombuds, just released its FY2014 report, “Building a Bridge between FOIA Requesters and Federal Agencies”. OGIS notes that its two key accomplishments for FY2014 were “establishing a new team to review agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies, procedures, and compliance, and establishing a new FOIA Advisory Committee”. The report highlights OGIS’ FOIA agency assessment program—including its report on NARA’s Special Access and FOIA program – as projects to keep an eye on.
The State Department claimed in a recent U.S. District Court filing that the agency is facing a surge in FOIA lawsuits, thanks to both processing delays and the Hillary Clinton email scandal. The filing noted “a 60% jump in such suits in the last fiscal year and are on pace for a 93% increase this year”. At the time of the filing there were 73 FOIA lawsuits pending against the State Department, compared to 29 in the six previous months. The State Department employs about 100 people to conduct-line-by-line reviews of documents found responsive to FOIA requests, “along with several dozen more staffers to assign the requests, handle litigation matters and work on closing out long-pending cases.”
A new private study led by Harvard’s Dr. Pieter A. Cohen warns of the dangers of a chemical found in common weight loss and workout supplements that were studied and documented – but not made public – by the FDA. The chemical, BMPEA, is “nearly identical to amphetamine” and has already been yanked off the shelves in Canada for the health risks it poses. The FDA found nine supplements available in the U.S. contained the chemical but failed to release the names of the supplements. Health experts say such inaction is symptomatic of a larger problem within the FDA, “The agency is not effectively policing the $33 billion-a-year supplements industry in part because top agency regulators themselves come from the industry and have conflicts of interest.”
The Obama administration is considering creating “fusion cells” comprised of officers from the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department and the intelligence community to better address overseas hostage situations. The proposal is one of several options the administration is reviewing to improve response to hostage crises, which has been criticized as bewildering and disjointed.
The FBI is requiring agents to pass a fitness test for the first time in 16 years. The change is a response to concerns that stress put on agents after 9/11 have negatively impacted agents’ performance “and given them less time for fitness.” Agents have until October to take the test, which is “not nearly” as grueling as “for military commandos or hostage rescue-team members.”
Once again the Defense Department 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. As Archivist William Burr notes, “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.”
In 1996 San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published an explosive three-part series, “The Dark Alliance”, on the connection between the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic in California and across the U.S., to the contras, the CIA-run and Reagan-backed guerrilla army operating out of Nicaragua. A recent Unredacted blog highlights the Archive’s 1998 posting of a collection of declassified documents obtained through the FOIA concerning the meat of Webb’s reporting: that there was official U.S. knowledge of, and collusion with, known drug traffickers connected to the contras.
The National Security Archive and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently published the proceedings, documents and rapporteur’s report from the critical oral history conference that Foreign Policy magazine called “an unprecedented 2014 gathering of former Rwandan officials and international policymakers who managed the response to the world’s worst mass murder since the Holocaust.” The new documentation draws attention to flaws in international decision-making that continue to hamper the effective prevention of and response to mass atrocity today.
This week’s #tbt pick is chosen with the 21st anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in mind, and is the January 11, 1994, cable from the UN commander of peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, to his supervisors in New York, now known as the “genocide fax.” In reply to the fax, UN officials rejected Dallaire’s request for authority to raid suspected arms caches, and instructed him instead to consult with government leaders tied to the Interahamwe, a pro-regime militia group. It was one of several turning points when the United Nations, backed by the United States and other powers, failed to take action that might have prevented the genocide.
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.“↩
In 1996 San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published an explosive three-part series, “The Dark Alliance”, on the connection between the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic in California and across the U.S., to the contras, the CIA-run and Reagan-backed guerrilla army operating out of Nicaragua. The firestorm surrounding Webb’s controversial series prompted outrage among African American communities hard hit by the epidemic, attempts by the media to discredit Webb, three federal investigations, and inspired the recent Hollywood “newsroom thriller” Kill the Messenger.
In 1998 the National Security Archive – in its second ever Electronic Briefing Book – posted a collection of declassified documents obtained through the FOIA concerning the meat of Webb’s reporting: that there was official U.S. knowledge of, and collusion with, known drug traffickers connected to the contras. The documents include handwritten notes by National Security Council staffer Oliver North showing North unequivocally knew money being used to fund the contras was drug money, and the Kerry Committee Report, which found in 1989 that “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.”
The Archive obtained Oliver North’s hand-written notebooks through a FOIA lawsuit in 1989. North, who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, recorded in them that he was repeatedly informed of the contras’ drug ties. A July 12, 1985, entry in North’s notebook, for example, details a call from retired Air Force general Richard Secord. North and Secord discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned to purchase weapons. According to the notebook, Secord told North that “14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs.”
In a later August 9, 1985, entry North summarized a meeting with his contras liaison, Robert “Rob” Owen. They discussed a plane used by the brother of the head of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) to transport supplies from New Orleans to contras in Honduras. North writes: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” North later asserted that he passed this information on to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), but the Washington Post’s Lorraine Adams reported in October 22, 1994, that there are no records that corroborate this.
It’s also worth nothing that the CIA sought to protect a Honduran “asset”– who was “convicted of conspiracy to smuggle $40 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. to finance the assassination of the president of Honduras – from a lengthy prison sentence for fear he might spill the beans on covert operations”.
A December 20, 1985, Associated Press article reporting that three contra groups “have engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua” prompted the Kerry Committee Report, the first federal report “to document U.S. knowledge of, and tolerance for, drug smuggling under the guise of national security.” As the Archive’s Peter Kornbluh reported, “Dramatic as it was, that story almost didn’t run, because of pressure by Reagan administration officials.” The 1,166-page Kerry Report, released in 1989, exposed Oliver North’s illegal activities and found “the Contra drug links included…payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.”
A specific incident investigated by the Kerry Committee and highlighted in the Archive’s 1998 posting was the July 28, 1988, testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime by two DEA agents regarding a sting operation conducted against the Medellin Cartel. The two agents said that in 1985 Oliver North had wanted to take $1.5 million in Cartel bribe money that was carried by a DEA informant and give it to the contras. The DEA rejected the idea.
On the other hand, the federal investigations initiated after “Dark Alliance’s” publication – some years after the completion of the Kerry Report – failed to support Webb’s more scandalous findings. An investigation into the CIA by the House Intelligence Committee found no evidence “that anyone associated with the CIA or other intelligence agencies was involved in supplying or selling drugs in Los Angeles”. A CIA inspector general investigation similarly found no evidence to support claims that drug trafficking was “motivated by any commitment to support the Contra cause or Contra activities undertaken by CIA”, and a Justice Department inspector general investigation found that “the allegations contained in the original Mercury News articles were exaggerations of the actual facts.”
Webb’s reporting did, however, generate an unprecedented visit by the director of the CIA, John Deutch, to a November 1996 town hall meeting in Watts, Los Angeles, to discuss the drug/contra scandal. As Kornbluh notes in his 1996 commentary for the Los Angeles Times, the trip was an opportunity to commit the CIA to a “process of disclosure and accountability that is necessary to lay the scandal to rest.”
Considering North’s records and the findings of the Kerry Report, the CIA likely got off lightly in the “Dark Alliance” investigations. This makes the CIA’s recent declassification of the Studies in Intelligence article, “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story”, all the more vexing. The article highlights the agency’s willingness to capitalize on media rivalries to help bury the larger truth about the agency’s documented relationship with drug traffickers — not exactly the type of disclosure and accountability Kornbluh had in mind.
While the federal investigations prompted by “The Dark Alliance” didn’t substantiate the series’ claims, declassified documents and the Kerry Report decidedly demonstrate U.S. knowledge of collaboration with known drug traffickers worthy of Hollywood’s spotlight.
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 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.