The FBI announced this week that it would not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified material as secretary of state. The decision was made on the grounds that Clinton did not willfully mishandle classified information by maintaining a personal email and server. The Clinton email fiasco has brought overclassification to the fore, and the National Security Archive has long argued that too much information gets classified and classification decisions are too often senseless. We’ve seen different agencies redact different portions of the same document, we’ve seen the same agency redact different portions of the same document, and we’ve even seen the same reviewer redact different portions of the same document a mere 10 days apart.
The investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email use through the lens of classification guidance has, however, overshadowed that Clinton’s email setup kept her records out of reach of FOIA requests, broke the Federal Records Act (36 CFR 1263.22), and went against NARA guidance on email management (NARA Bulletin 2011-03).
But Clinton can bolster her transparency credentials in the wake of the scandal and FBI Director Comey’s rebuke by building off the FOIA reform legislation signed into law by President Obama on June 30 – the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.
The Washington Post Editorial Board recently noted that the bill signing, which roughly coincided with FOIA’s 50th birthday, codifies several important improvements that will help ensure FOIA “remains a vital tool for keeping government open and honest.” Among the most important improvements are a 25-year sunset for the “wildly misused” FOIA exemption (b)(5), codification of a presumption of disclosure, and a requirement that agencies update their FOIA regulations within 180 days of the passage of the bill.
The bill leaves room for improvement, however, providing Clinton – or whoever succeeds President Obama – a much needed opportunity to show how she will promote transparency. Two key ways Clinton could commit to improving transparency and FOIA is to enact a public interest balancing test for each exemption an agency wishes to invoke, and establish a government commission or mechanism which can overturn bad agency FOIA decisions (like the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel in the Mandatory Declassification Review process). These steps would also help the FOIA’s middling global ranking compared to other transparency laws (Canada’s Center for Law and Democracy ranked the US FOIA 46 out of 103 transparency laws in a recent poll, between Tunisia and Trinidad and Tobago.)
The DC Court of Appeals ruled this week that private account emails can sometimes be considered government records subject to FOIA. The ruling focused on Office of Science and Technology Policy science adviser John Holdren and an account he “kept on a server at the non-profit Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.” Two of the three appeals court judges wrote, “If a department head can deprive the citizens of their right to know what his department is up to by the simple expedient of maintaining his departmental emails on an account in another domain, that purpose is hardly served.”
The Department of Justice Office of Information Policy recently released its report on the proactive disclosure pilot assessment. Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones tweeted the biggest takeaways from the report, namely that if agencies like the Air Force, the National Archives, and the Environmental Protection Agency can employ technologies that automatically OCR and post FOIA responses into a repository, meaning that FOIA staff don’t need to spend any additional time posting FOIA-processed documents, why can’t all agencies use such efficient software to automatically post documents?
The OIP report, unfortunately, did not take the opportunity to dispel the 508 “red herring.” Section 508 requires agencies ensure that persons with disabilities have comparable access to data as persons without disabilities and that federal employees with disabilities can access records with the same ease as their non-disabled counterparts – and has been in effect since 1998. Yet agencies routinely argue that making documents 508 compliant is too burdensome – even though agencies including the Department of State and all the agencies that participate in FOIAonline , which OIP participates in – routinely demonstrate otherwise, regularly posting their records online and in full compliance with Section 508. OIP missed an opportunity to take the lead and challenge other government agencies to meet the same standard it adheres to.
British investigators have released the results of a seven-year inquiry into Britain’s role, under Tony Blair’s leadership, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Washington Post notes, “The report describes British intelligence painting a flawed picture of Iraqi military capacity, with agencies never doubting the existence of weapons of mass destruction.” The report also faults Blair’s government for presenting Saddam Hussein’s threat to Britain with a “certainty that was not justified,” and ignoring warnings that invading Iraq could grow the threat of Islamic extremism.
These findings square with documents posted by the National Security Archive back in 2010, which show that for nearly a year before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that the British government collaborated closely with the George W. Bush administration to produce a far starker picture of the threat from Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction than was justified by intelligence at the time.
The documents show, among other things, that:
- From early 2002 both governments were seeking regime change, but Prime Minister Blair and his officials were very conscious of the need to make a case for war, based on claims about Iraqi WMDs.
- From March 2002 – the very beginning of the process – the US and UK administrations were concerned about maintaining consistency in their claims about Iraqi weapons, often at the cost of accuracy. In the spring of 2002 the two countries began to produce in parallel the white papers on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that they published that fall. At least two drafts of the respective white papers were exchanged from either side in order to avoid providing grist for “opponents of action.”
- Officials working on the parallel papers took part in a number of secure video conferences to avoid inconsistencies between the documents. Both sides accelerated the drafting of their white papers in September 2002 as part of a coordinated propaganda effort.
The National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault recently posted photographs and videos of Operation Crossroads’ “Able” test, which took place seventy years ago this month. Operation Crossroads was a joint US Army-Navy task force that attempted to measure the effects of atomic explosions on warships and other military targets by staging two atomic weapons tests at Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands. The first test, Able, took place on 1 July 1946, and “involved an air burst directly above the assembled ships… The bomb missed its target by several thousand feet, destroying inadvertently one of the ships carrying measuring instruments. The error created a storm of criticism, but it was never fully explained, although the poor ballistics of ‘Fat Man’ were probably a factor.” The second test, Baker, took place on 25 July 1946 and was, according to Nuclear Vault director Dr. William Burr, “the most dangerous and spectacular of the two, producing iconic images of nuclear explosions. A third test was scheduled, but canceled.”
This week’s #tbt pick is chosen with The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s July 3rd profile of Fredy Peccerelli – Guatemala’s foremost forensic anthropologist and longtime partner of the National Security Archive’s Guatemala Documentation Project – in mind. This week’s #tbt pick is the Archive’s 2011 posting on the Diario Militar case and the discovery – with Peccerelli’s help – of two of Guatemala’s death squad victims in a mass grave. The remains belonged to Amancio Samuel Villatoro and Sergio Saúl Linares Morales.
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Fredy Peccerelli – Guatemala’s foremost forensic anthropologist and longtime partner of the National Security Archive’s Guatemala Documentation Project – is profiled in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in an article that will run on Sunday, July 3.
“The Secrets in Guatemala’s Bones,” by Maggie Jones, traces the arc of Fredy’s early training in the art of forensic anthropology by some of the greats in the field – including the late Clyde Snow, and Karen Ramey Burns – to his extraordinary work as director of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG). Under Fredy’s leadership, FAFG has located and exhumed thousands of bodies of the victims of Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, bringing closure and consolation to families of the massacred and disappeared, as well as vital evidence of human rights crimes to courtrooms.
In 2012, Fredy Peccerelli and the Archive’s Kate Doyle were jointly awarded the ALBA / Puffin Foundation Award for Human Rights Activism in recognition of their shared work in Guatemala.
To read more about the National Security Archive’s collaboration with FAFG in the Diario Militar case, visit the Archive’s posting, “Remains of Two of Guatemala’s Death Squad Diary Victims Found in Mass Grave.”
FBI Tells Orlando Law Enforcement Not to Respond to Records Requests as FOIA Turns 50: A Supersized FRINFORMSUM 6/30/2016
The Freedom of Information Act turns 50 on July 4, and the President will likely sign meaningful FOIA reform into law on Independence Day. To celebrate the occasion, we are highlighting 50 of this year’s biggest headlines made possible by FOIA. Did you know that FOIA showed that federal marshals inappropriately used classification labels to hide controversial cell phone surveillance practices? Or that FOIA revealed that the Postal Service’s surveillance program, mail covers, failed to follow key safeguards? These stories and dozens more can be found at the National Security Archive.
Looking ahead, the Sunlight Foundation’s Alex Howard has seven ideas how to build on the impending FOIA reforms that won’t (for the most part) require additional legislation. These ideas include encouraging FOIA processors to pick up the phone and contact requesters, better FOIA training, and asking for requester feedback. In 2015 the FOIA Advisory Committee distributed an important fee survey – but only to FOIA processors; according to the Committee, “logistical problems, problems about doing polls and publishing results” made it impractical to distribute a similar poll to the public. This prompted the National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight to distribute our own, similar survey to FOIA requesters to provide a more balanced view. While bureaucratic red tape is a real obstacle, this is the kind of requester data that the government should actively be collecting and analyzing.
CJ Ciaramella has a good piece on Congressman John Moss, the father of the FOIA. Among other quotables Ciaramella notes, “By the mid-1960s, Moss had been holding hearings for more than a decade about government opacity. All told, 27 federal agencies testified on his proposed transparency legislation, all of them in opposition. The Department of Justice said the FOIA would be unconstitutional — that it violated the separation of powers. Yet by 1966, Moss had acquired a critical mass of support for the FOIA among liberal Democrats and Republicans eager to needle the Johnson administration, such as a young Republican named Donald Rumsfeld, who co-sponsored the bill.”
Visit the National Security Archive’s FOIA-at-50 posting for a collection of the Archive’s seminal postings on FOIA’s history.
The FOIA ombuds, the Office of Government Information Services, posted a good blog this week highlighting the State Department’s recent efforts to issue “still interested” letters in accordance with Justice Department guidance. The guidance requires agencies, among other things, to give requesters at least 30 days to respond to the letter before closing a request. OGIS contacted the State Department in May after the National Security Archive’s Nate Jones posted on social media that the State Department sent him a “still interested” letter that only gave him 15 days to respond. It is to OGIS’s credit that they confronted the State Department about its failure to comply with DOJ guidance and it is to the State Department’s credit that it has changed its policy to give requesters at least 45 days to answer a “still interested” letter. The fact remains, however, that nothing in the FOIA statute grants agencies the authority to administratively close a request in such a fashion.
The FBI is telling the Orlando law enforcement agencies that responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting not to respond to records requests on the massacre, and to “immediately notify the FBI of any requests your agency received.” The FBI also recently denied the Orlando Sentinel’s FOIA request for information on the shooting.
This isn’t the first time the FBI has tried to co-opt Florida’s strong public records law. In 2012 the FBI demanded that the University of South Florida (USF) “immediately return copies of e-mails from one of its agents” concerning disgraced associate professor Dajin Peng. The agent, Dianne Mercurio, had been in contact with Peng since 2009, encouraging him to spy on connections Peng had high within Chinese intelligence circles, and leveraged Peng’s tenuous position at USF, where he was being investigated for falsifying expense accounts, making inappropriate advances towards female colleagues, and keeping explicit material on a USF computer, to compel him to keep spying. Fortunately, USF followed Florida’s open government law and released Mercurio’s e-mails in response to a request from Bloomberg News, rebuffing (in this case) the FBI’s efforts to keep the records secret.
A federal judge ruled that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s explanation for withholding the names of companies and federal agencies involved in Operation Hemisphere from an EPIC FOIA lawsuit was “legally insufficient,” and ordered the DEA to either provide the records or specific reasons for withholding them. The New York Times reported in 2013 that under Operation Hemisphere the government pays AT&T, the only company identified to date as a participant, for access to an enormous database “that contains the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls” and “covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers.” Approximately four billion call records are added to the AT&T database daily, and the records include information on the locations of callers. The scale and longevity (the AT&T records go back to 1987) of Operation Hemisphere “appears to be unmatched by other government programs, including the N.S.A.’s gathering of phone call logs under the Patriot Act.” Courthouse New Service notes that “The judge also rejected the DEA’s argument that knowing which federal agencies used Hemisphere would help criminals avoid detection via the program.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a petition in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, asking it to rehear its decision denying public access to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full Torture Report. On May 13, 2016, the appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling that the report “is a congressionally generated and controlled document that is not subject to disclosure under FOIA.” The ACLU petition notes the Torture Report “is a uniquely important agency record” of exceptional importance that warrants en banc review.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon told the State Department that “There’s no way I’m ever going to grant you an extension to mid-October” to release FOIA documents to the AP on “a deal the agency cut with defense contractor BAE Systems while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.” The initial court-imposed deadline to complete the processing of records related to “a consent decree BAE reached in 2011 settling civil claims over violations of U.S. arms export control laws and regulations” was April 4, later extended to June 13 – although the State Department failed to meet either deadline. Josh Gerstein reports that, “Given the glacial pace of many of the roughly 100 FOIA suits pending against State in the wake of the Clinton email flap, Leon’s schedule for resolving the case seems wildly ambitious.”
FOIA requests to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with housing data and interviews with borrowers, show that some of the largest private equity companies that bought billions of dollars of mortgages at steep discounts from HUD during the housing crisis are aggressively pushing homeowners into foreclosure with little federal oversight. A long-form New York Times piece shows that some big private equity companies are making many of the same mistakes banks made in the lead-up to the housing crisis, and that “much of this [private equity] investment has not benefited poor neighborhoods. Banks are expected, under the Community Reinvestment Act, to help meet the credit needs of low-income neighborhoods in areas they serve. Private equity has no such obligation.” The exposé also highlights that at least one private equity company, Nationwide, functions as a “mortgage bill collector, auction house for foreclosed homes and lender to new borrowers. By working every angle, and collecting fees at each step, the company faces potential conflicts of interest that enable it to make money on what is otherwise a costly foreclosure process.”
A 2013 New York State Department inspector general report on the athletic commission – “an odd little agency charged with the considerable responsibility of ensuring the integrity of professional boxing” – released under the FOIA improperly withheld factual information and final agency decisions. The inappropriate withholdings were uncovered when the FOIA release was compared to a leaked version of the same IG report, and paints a picture of a “profoundly dysfunctional agency” that struggles enforcing internal controls, promoting safety, and has “blurred lines of propriety.” One of the passages wrongly redacted from the report summarizes that “It is clear that many of the problems and shortcomings identified in past investigations and audits of the State Athletic Commission continue to exist today.” One day after the report was issued, Russian heavyweight boxer Magomed Abdusalamov was left speechless and partially paralyzed from a televised match, after which agency officials simply instructed his team to find a taxi to take him to the hospital.
Jason Leopold recently reported that a proposed amendment to the annual intelligence spending bill would force the intelligence community (namely the CIA) to account for its relationship with the entertainment industry. The CIA was involved in 22 entertainment projects between 2006 and 2011, most notably the films Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, and an episode of Top Chef. Leopold notes, “In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, writer and producer Mark Boal and Katherine Bigelow gave CIA officers involved in the operation that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden gifts including dinners, fake pearl earrings, a bottle of tequila, and tickets to a Prada fashion show. The filmmakers, in turn, got access.” (The National Security Archive compiled all of the available official documents on the mission to kill bin Laden in 2013 to provide balance to the Hollywood/CIA record). The amendment states clearly, however, that “Neither the production of entertainment nor the self-promotion of Intelligence Community entities are legitimate purposes for these engagements.”
District Court of D.C. Judge Royce C. Lamberth will address the American Society of Access Processionals 9th annual training conference this July. In 2015 Lamberth, who has a strong track-record on FOIA, railed against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) FOIA performance in connection with a FOIA lawsuit seeking “documents covering communications with groups and individuals concerning potential EPA regulations.” Earlier this year he also granted Judicial Watch discovery in pursuit of “details about how Hillary Clinton’s private email account was integrated into the State Department recordkeeping system and why it was not searched in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.” Lamberth cited the government’s wrongdoing and bad faith in his ruling, and chastised the “constantly shifting admissions by the Government and the former government officials.” The Archive’s Robert Wampler will also be at the training conference, co-presenting the“Deciphering Exemption 1” breakout session on Wednesday, July 20 from 9:15-10:30 am with Paul Jacobsmeyer from the DOD’s FOIA Office.
This week’s #tbt pick is chosen in honor of FOIA’s upcoming anniversary and is the text of Bill Moyers’ keynote address at the National Security Archive’s 20th anniversary party, “In the Kingdom of the Half-Blind.” Moyers was the White House Press Secretary when LBJ grudgingly signed the FOIA into law in 1966, although the momentous event doesn’t even appear in LBJ’s daily journal – see below.
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FOIA Reform Sent to President, Privacy Oversight Board May be Curtailed, Powerful Surveillance Letters Not Expanded – for Now: FRINFORMSUM 6/23/2016
The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 (S.337) was sent to the President’s desk on June 22, and the President has ten business days to sign the bill. If President Obama waits (as he likely will) until the last day to sign it, he will sign FOIA reform into law on the 50th anniversary of the act – on July 4. The bill codifies several significant FOIA improvements; among them agencies must:
- Apply a 25-year sunset for the “wildly misused” FOIA exemption (b)(5), an exemption that currently has no time limit and was recently used to successfully deny a CIA draft history of the 53-year-old Bay of Pigs invasion.
- Update their FOIA regulations within 180 days after the passage of the bills. (A National Security Archive audit shows that too many federal agencies have not updated their regulations to comply with the 2007 Open Government FOIA improvements. By neglecting to update their “FOIA handbooks,” agencies are essentially ignoring Congress’s FOIA reforms.)
- Improve public digital access to released records.
- See here for Toby McIntosh’s write-up with all the details of what is included in the bill.
The jurisdiction of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) will be narrowed for the second year in a row if the Senate Intelligence Committee’s version of the FY2017 Intelligence Authorization Act becomes law. (PCLOB is an independent agency charged with ensuring that the government’s terrorism efforts don’t infringe on privacy and civil liberties.) Steve Aftergood notes that SSCI’s version would limit the Board’s scope to the privacy and civil liberties “of United States persons” only, and “does not appear to permit even ‘secondary’ consideration of the privacy of non-U.S. persons” – muddying the waters of how PCLOB would – or if it even could – act in areas where nationality is unclear.
Senators Martin Heinrich and Mazie K. Hirono published dissenting remarks to the Committee’s decision, noting that “Limiting the PCLOB’s mandate to only U.S. persons could create ambiguity about the scope of the PCLOB’s mandate, raising questions in particular about how the PCLOB should proceed in the digital domain, where individuals’ U.S. or non-U.S. status is not always apparent.” Senator Ron Wyden also published a dissent, saying “My concern is that by acting to restrict the Board’s purview for the second year in a row, and by making unwarranted criticisms of the Board’s staff in this report, the Intelligence Committee is sending the message that the Board should not do its job too well.”
PCLOB was first curtailed in 2015 when Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee successfully advanced a provision to the 2016 intelligence authorization bill blocking PCLOB access to information on covert programs. The move was allegedly made after Republicans on the committee were angered by an opinion piece written by former PCLOB chair David Medine, which argued that PCLOB is entitled by law to have “access to all relevant reports and material from any executive branch agency. It may also interview government personnel and ask the attorney general to subpoena the production of any relevant information from the private sector.”
PCLOB’s shrinking mandate is troubling, as it has made a number of important contributions to the surveillance debate, including publishing a chart “on how U.S. intelligence agencies use a Reagan-era executive order  to collect Americans’ private information,” that shows most agency guidelines are woefully outdated. “Most agencies have not revisited their handling of data collection since the early 2000s, and in some cases not since the 1980s.”
A 2014 PCLOB report found that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of foreign communications is lawful, but that elements of Section 702 come “close to the line” of being unconstitutional. Senators Heinrich and Hirono also argued in their dissent that it is possible that PCLOB could not have reviewed Section 702 under the proposed version of the FY2017 IAA, as it focused “on the communications of foreigners located outside of the United States, but which is also acknowledged to be incidentally collecting Americans’ communications in the process.”
The Senate has blocked an effort by Republicans to expand the use of the FBI’s national security letters (NSL), which demand business records from a wide array of organizations for national security investigations, to include “email metadata and some browsing history information.” The block is a step in the right direction for the NSLs – use of which has grown dramatically after the 2001 Patriot Act lowered the bar for their issuance, but does not address concerns about the NSL’s lack of judicial oversight and their accompanying gag orders.
Last year Nicholas Merrill, who ran the small Internet company Calyx, became the first person allowed to fully disclose the contents of an NSL he received from the FBI in 2004. Thanks to a multi-year court battle Merrill’s gag order was been lifted, and revealed that in 2004 the FBI demanded Merrill “turn over all physical mail addresses, email addresses and Internet Protocol addresses associated with one customer’s account, as well as telephone and billing records and anything else considered to be an ‘electronic communications transactional record.’” The NSL also demanded cell-tower location data and any “screen names” or online nicknames associated with the customer in question.
As recently as 2014, an intelligence panel set up by President Obama proposed, at the very least, requiring judicial approval for issuing NSLs, and cited a 2008 Justice Department Inspector General report as proof that they are extensively misused (more on that 2008 IG report here). The expert intelligence panel also importantly noted that, “We are unable to identify a principled reason why NSLs should be issued by FBI officials when section 215 orders and orders for pen register and trap-and-trace surveillance must be issued by the FISC,” going on to suggest that a transition should take place “as soon as reasonably possible.”
The National Security Agency is withholding 90-year-old information on early American cryptanalytic efforts against Russia and the Soviet Union from a 20-year-old document on the grounds that releasing the information could “reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to national security.” Specifically, the NSA claims that the release of the information would harm another government agency’s (OGA) “intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology” – the OGA cited by the NSA is either the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) or the CIA. The very dubious withholding joins a growing list of incredulous claims of secrecy, including:
- The CIA withholding documents from 1917 and 1918 — including a document that described World War 1 “secret ink” recipes and instructions on how to open sealed letters covertly.
- The Defense Department needlessly redacting Nikita Khrushchev’s public statements about Jupiter missiles in Turkey from a 50-year-old document; and
- The DIA withholding large sections of a 1975 biographical sketch of General Augusto Pinochet on national security grounds, including Pinochet’s liquor choices – “scotch and pisco sours” – even though it had released the document a year earlier without the redactions.
The National Security Archive today posted a collection of recently discovered British documents that provide a new account of the CIA’s role in a top-secret plan to ravage the Middle East oil industry in the event of a Soviet invasion, turning the oil companies into a paramilitary force ready to execute the “denial policy.” Versions of the “denial policy” remained in effect at least until the Kennedy Administration. The documents also show that British military officials went so far as to contemplate going nuclear to get the job done if suitable conventional weapons were not available.
Michael Landis has a good piece in We’re History on how the X-Men trilogy are inspired by Cold War diplomacy, concluding that “These three connected films show three crucial moments in the Cold War, and three distinct periods of American history, all exploring the dangers of militant nationalism and the rights of racial minorities in a majoritarian society.” It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the Cuban Missile Crisis eyeball-to-eyeball myth (the “climatic confrontation between US and Soviet ships off the coast of Cuba”) never happened; rather, “the missile-carrying ships were already headed back to the Soviet Union at this point, and were at least 500 nautical miles from the closest American warship.”
Today’s #tbt pick is chosen with the recent cease-fire agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in mind. Today’s #tbt pick is a posting from the Archive’s Michael Evans on the under-the-table agreement between the Chiquita Brands International and Colombian terrorist organizations – including FARC. Evans notes:
A Chiquita “Audit Memo” from December 1993 recommended that the company conceal payments to guerrilla groups “to maintain the appearance of a responsible corporate citizen.” By 1995, the company had a “one-inch high binder” of “Boys in the Hills,” according to annotations on another Chiquita accounting record. (“Boys in the hills” is a relatively common expression for guerrilla insurgent groups.) A handwritten memo from 1996 explained how payments to the FARC, ELN and EPL guerrilla groups worked. “We negotiate with all of them,” according to the memo. The EPL, in particular, “helped us out a lot with [the] labor union issue.”
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The United States and Great Britain concocted plans in the late 1940s to destroy Middle Eastern oil wells in case the Soviet Red Army ever decided to invade the region, according to a posting by the National Security Archive today. The plans changed over time but a version of them remained in place at least until the Kennedy administration.
Furthermore, British military officials went so far as to contemplate going nuclear to get the job done if suitable conventional weapons were not available.
These and other revelations appear in a group of records journalist Steve Everly uncovered through research at Britain’s National Archives. Everly first broke the story of the Truman administration authorizing plans to blow up petroleum facilities in a story for the Kansas City Star in 1996, co-written with Charles. R.T. Crumpley.
These activities contemplated by Washington and London would have constituted interventionism on a scale hard to imagine nowadays. (They bring to mind images of Kuwait’s smoldering oil fields after Saddam Hussein’s retreat in February 1991.) But a key point to keep in mind was the objective of blocking a Soviet invasion.
It’s easy in this day and age to forget the dread many in the West felt at the notion of advancing world communism. By 1948 and 1949, when Harry Truman signed NSC 26 and 26/2, approving the oil denial operations, Moscow had already subjugated the nations of Eastern Europe, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia had just taken place, and the Berlin Airlift was underway after the Soviets tried to blockade the city.
A couple of years earlier, Stalin had used brute military strength and subversion in the so-called northern tier states of Turkey and Iran to try to intimidate their governments into granting concessions. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers serving in Iran in the late 1940s and early 1950s took it for granted the Red Army had its sights on the geographically strategic and oil-drenched Gulf states. John Waller, who was stationed in Iran at the time and later rose to become a senior CIA official, told this author in an interview several years ago that local authorities in the northern provinces of Iran assumed it wasn’t a matter of if but when the Soviets would come marching through.
Still, the idea of destroying another country’s industrial infrastructure is jarring. And this was Harry Truman, whose ideas on interventionism are usually seen as far less extreme than his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, who approved the infamous 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, which Truman had rejected almost a year earlier.
Of course, the architects of the plans described in these documents would not have described themselves as interventionists. They saw themselves as saviors of not only the Western world (against a Soviet juggernaut intent on choking off vital oil supplies) but of the powerless Gulf states that would be condemned to years of harsh occupation. Difficult as it is for many to accept nowadays, this was also one of Eisenhower’s primary rationales for the 1953 coup. The British and even some of Ike’s advisers may have had other objectives including naked profiteering from the oil industry, but it is a mistake to overlook the motive of altruism (however self-deluding it was at times) when trying to understand the United States’ vision of itself in the modern world.
These documents uncovered by Steve Everly (see the related article on Politico) are also interesting from the standpoint of government classification/declassification decisions. Iran has been a super-sensitive topic for policymakers since the revolution of 1978-1979. Quantities of records on Iran from the archives of the United States, Britain, Russia and elsewhere have been withheld for decades on various grounds, notably the concern not to spark blowback inside Iran by hardliners looking for excuses to denounce the outside world.
The 1953 coup is the poster child here. (See here, for example.) Yet somehow the British (MI6, at least) are more comfortable with the world knowing some of their representatives contemplated nuking the sovereign states of the Gulf than they are acknowledging their part in a political operation that has been an open secret for decades.
This interview, conducted by Dr. Klaas Voß (Hamburg Institute for Social Research), is part of a seven-part series on the evolution of Cold War research — Taking Stock of Cold War Research. The interview initially appeared on the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies website and on the Military History Portal.
Part I: Origins and Evolution of Cold War Studies
“Are we currently experiencing a new Cold War”? This question has recently been discussed in the media. Would you agree?
I do not believe that we are currently experiencing a new Cold War. We are experiencing a new period of hostility and profound mistrust between Russia and the West as a whole, but especially between Russia and the United States. However, this period lacks two key characteristics that were integral to the Cold War—the Communist ideology, which stipulated class struggle as a basis for international relations, and the geostrategic superpower conflict, in which the Unites States and the Soviet Union enjoyed rough parity by the early 1970s and treated each other as the main global rival (giving them a status of equals).
I think that defining this period as a new Cold War might focus one’s attention on the familiar factors discussed in the extensive Cold War historiography, but miss the new dynamics of the new period, such as nationalism and terrorism, role of non-state actors, new threats, and the non-ideological, corporatist nature of Putin authoritarianism. Also, in some aspects, this new period might be even more dangerous. What deeply concerns me personally is that in Russia this new period differs from the Cold War in at least one important way—the rejection of Western liberal values by a large part of Russian society, and the genuine anti-American feeling, which is only partly due to the successful official propaganda.
What have been the most important trends and developments in Cold War research since 1990? Which new areas were explored in the last 25 years?
In my view, the single most important development has been the multilingual multiarchival research, which became possible in the 1990s with the opening of the Eastern bloc archives. Hopefully, this kind of research is becoming the norm in the Cold War studies. Another important feature is collaboration between scholars from different countries, most importantly across the former Iron Curtain, which, unfortunately, is becoming less frequent now than in the 1990s. Another important new feature of the Cold War research is the focus on the Third World and regional and societal causes of Third World conflicts.
In the 1990s, there was a brief period in which former Soviet/Russian archives were relatively accessible for historians. Was this window of opportunity used wisely – and how did it change the field?
I personally benefitted greatly from the opening of the Soviet/Russian archives. I think it changed the field profoundly by allowing both Western and Russian historians to see the Cold War from the perspective of the Soviet bloc and therefore enabled historians and general public to practice empathy and more rigorous research. This opening resulted in real breakthroughs in many important areas of research, the best example being the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the time when the Soviet archives opened, the researchers (at least most of them) working in them did not think in terms of window of opportunity, we thought it was the new normal. Had I known that the new openness would be temporary, I would have spent every day of my summers of 1993 and 1994 in the archives and copied as much as possible for future research.
However, some Western researchers and organizations with unlimited funds contributed to the commercialization of the Russian archives and to the eventual closing of the window of opportunity. Nonetheless, due to efforts of many individuals and organizations, a great number of Soviet documents are now available in the West, such as Fond 89 at the Hoover Institution.
Part II: The Status Quo
In terms of actors, geography, and time periods, what are the present “gravity wells” in Cold War Studies?
As for actors, I noticed an increasing significance of Third World actors, non-state actors and a growing interest in both societies (as a whole) and individuals. Geographically speaking, Europe, East Asia and Africa seem to capture the interest of scholars. There is currently a strong interest in the end phase of the Cold War and the 1970s.
The National Security Archive has become famous for its constant battle for the release of new documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). How would you compare the release policy in the U.S. to that of other countries? How would you describe the situation in Eastern and Western Europe?
In the United States, the FOIA is imperfect but it does follow an established practice and consistent effort over the years, leading to positive results in most cases. For me, the most important feature of the FOIA is the assumption that an individual has a right to see the document of interest to him or her regardless of how recent it is (with some exceptions) unless there are still specific grounds to classify it as secret.
As far as I know, in Western Europe the time limits for declassification remain relatively strict and the declassification process for documents regarding foreign policy and security is more complicated. In Eastern Europe, the archives retained some of the openness that resulted from the end of the Cold War. In Russia, however, declassification process has ground to a halt, many documents were reclassified, or access to them is limited to privileged researchers and the procedure of working in the archives is often unnecessarily complicated.
At the same time, there are very important collections that have been recently added to RGANI [Russian State Archive of Contemporary History] funds, such as the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko collections that are completely open and accessible to researchers. The irony is that if one reads the Russian FOI law, on paper it looks even better than the U.S. law, but it simply does not work, especially as it pertains to documents of the Soviet period.
Which advice would you currently give to scholars who want to focus on Soviet political, diplomatic or military history during the Cold War? What are the best chances for realizing a document-based book project in this field?
First of all, learn Russian if you are serious about document-based research. In addition to the ability to read documents and conduct interviews, it will bring you a lot of positive encouragement and help from Russians who you encounter on the way, even archivists. Go to Russian archives and spend some time (be prepared to spend much more time than you would expect to spend in Western archives) finding out what is available. Show some persistence, you will be rewarded.
There is a general notion in the West that the Russian archives are closed; that is not true. Although access to military and KGB archives is extremely limited, there are gold mines for a serious researcher available at RGANI, GARF [State Archive of the Russian Federation] and RGASPI [Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History]. Do not forget to check online descriptions of collections—especially helpful (down to individual file level and searchable) for GARF. Foreign Ministry archives are quite cumbersome (no open opisi [finding aids]) but very rich for most of the time period of the Cold War.
Check Russian documents publications—an impressive number of them are coming out every year, some as a result of collaboration between Russian archives and Western academic organizations, the Yakovlev Foundation and publications by Russian academic institutes. Do not overlook private archives and collections, such as the Gorbachev Foundation. Make sure that you checked Soviet documents available in major archival collections in the West, such as the Hoover Institution and the Harvard Cold War Center. There are also great oral history materials, they are especially important for the period of the end of the Cold War. If you do not yet have the workable level of Russian, you can start with translated documents such as the impressive collection of the Cold War International History Project and electronic postings and published volumes by the National Security Archive. And finally—come visit the National Security Archive—we have a great collection of Soviet and Russian documents and we will do our best to give you some good advice on your topic.
Part III: Looking Ahead
In some research circles (including the Wilson Center and recent document releases by the National Security Archive), there seems to be a renewed interest in Cold War nuclear history and strategy. Could this trajectory prove to be of broader significance to the field?
I would think so because nuclear weapons defined so much of the Cold War realities and because the story of nuclear weapons is so relevant today. Development of nuclear weapons certainly contributed to the origins of the Cold War and to the intense mutual suspicions and fear on both sides of the divide. In addition to being the basis of the Cold War balance of power, nuclear weapons had an immeasurable impact on the psychology of the Cold War.
Besides, it is worth studying how even in the Cold War both sides found a way to cooperate in limiting and ultimately reducing these weapons and engaged in comprehensive multi-year negotiations where participants developed better knowledge and understanding of the other side. This nuclear learning later contributed to the end of the Cold War. Lessons learned from Cold War crises and these negotiations are applicable today in the world where nuclear weapons became more widespread and arguably more dangerous.
Which new impulses can we expect in the next few years from research conducted in former Communist bloc countries? And are there any hopes for a better availability of Russian documents?
One is listed above—more interest on nuclear history. Another is the focus on the society, various groups below the political leadership level that were important actors in the Cold War. Also an important impulse is comes from the small actors, small states, who were often perceived to be just puppets of the superpowers, but in fact had their own interest and roles.
I think there is hope for better availability of documents on the Russian side but these might be coming in official publications or in focused declassifications that are made on state initiative for certain periods and topics of Soviet history. Even though it does not fit into the Cold War studies field, I would like to emphasize the subject of utmost importance in the contemporary history of Russia and the former Soviet states—the early post-Cold War years—the Russian experience of 1990s and the role of the United States, including the denuclearization of the FSU, the economic reform, and the expansion of NATO.
Coming full circle: How might the current political situation (Ukraine, sanctions etc.) affect Cold War History in Eastern European countries and in Russia?
Coming full circle is a good formulation. There is a renewed interest in history in Russia now. It is fueled to a large extent by the nationalist agenda. Study of history was hailed by the Russian president as the most important of sciences. We now see history used as a political weapon more and more often, especially after the start of the conflict in Ukraine. There is an overwhelming number of pseudo-historical publications filling the shelves of Russian bookstores. Cold War research is popular in Russian universities. I can envision more post-Cold War revisionism in Russian Cold War studies with themes such as the U.S. drive to global superiority and attempts to weaken Russia and deny it legitimate spheres of influence to be reflected in more serious, document-based dissertations and monographs.
The National Security Agency is withholding 90-year-old information on early American cryptanalytic efforts against Russia and the Soviet Union from a 20-year-old document on the grounds that releasing the information could “reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to national security.”
Specifically, the NSA claims that the release of the information would harm another government agency’s (OGA) “intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology” – the OGA cited by the NSA is either the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) or the CIA.
The NSA withheld the passage on 1920s cryptanalytic efforts from “Bourbon to Black Friday: The Allied Collaborative COMINT Effort against the Soviet Union, 1945 – 1948,” an internal NSA history authored by Michael Peterson. The agency, however, released information on:
- Details of the COMINTERN “cipher code,” surreptitiously acquired from Stockholm , Sweden , in 1923;
- Similarly acquired explanation of a Soviet dinomic system in 1925; and
- Details of what was thought to be a Bolshevik code used in Java in 1928, acquired by the Office of Naval Intelligence from Dutch authorities.
The NSA withholding 90-year-old information adds to a growing list of dubious secrets. Other (by no means exhaustive) examples include:
- The CIA withholding documents from 1917 and 1918 — including a document that described World War 1 “secret ink” recipes and instructions on how to open sealed letters covertly. The CIA kept these documents secret until 2011, and then misleadingly crediting their declassification to “recent advancements in technology.” The real reason these documents saw the light of day, however, was of a decade-long Freedom of Information Act fight, lawsuits, a Mandatory Declassification Review request, and finally, an appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel to pry the documents loose;
- The Defense Department needlessly redacting Nikita Khrushchev’s public statements about Jupiter missiles in Turkey from a 50-year-old document;
- The DIA withholding large sections of a 1975 biographical sketch of General Augusto Pinochet on national security grounds, including Pinochet’s liquor choices – “scotch and pisco sours” – even though it had released the document a year earlier without the redactions;
- Multiple instances of declassification authorities withholding the contents of documents on anti-ballistic missiles, strategic arms control, and U.S. policy toward China, all of which had been declassified years earlier, with one of them even published in the State Department’s historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States;
- Defense Department classification of “Poodle Blanket” contingency plans from 1961 for a possible confrontation over West Berlin; and
- Declassifiers withholding different portions of the same State Department document four times over a 12-year period.
The NSA’s very dubious withholding also supports arguments made by National Security Archive executive director Tom Blanton in a July 2015 Washington Post op-ed, in which he says, “real secrets make up only a fraction of the classified universe, and no secret deserves immortality…I showed Congress the estimates over the years of how much gets classified that doesn’t deserve to be. Ronald Reagan’s executive secretary for the National Security Council, Rodney B. McDaniel, said 90 percent. Thomas H. Kean, the Republican head of the 9/11 Commission, said 75 percent of what he saw that was classified should not have been.”
It’s safe to say NSA declassifiers didn’t get a chance to read Blanton’s op-ed. They should go back and do so.
Many thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Richelson, director of the Archive’s Cyber Vault, for bringing this document to my attention.