Declassification and the “Crisis” in Intelligence History

The ongoing failure to establish a robust, reliable and productive declassification program is steadily eroding the study of intelligence history and may lead to the collapse of the entire field, one intelligence historian told the National Security Agency last month.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’re at a crisis point in the study of intelligence history in general, and signals intelligence history in particular;  because there is a very real question of whether any serious historians outside of the intelligence community are going to continue trying to research and understand and write about this subject at all,” said author Stephen Budiansky in an invited lecture at the National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade on May 24.

“The critical mass of scholars willing to invest the considerable energy required to master the technicalities of a complex and often difficult-to-understand subject is dwindling in the face of the impossibility of making a career in a field where the primary sources — notably nearly all documents relating to the post-World War II period — are locked away and no longer forthcoming.”

“As my fellow intelligence historian David Alvarez recently remarked to me, Dave Kahn [author of the pioneering book 'The Codebreakers'] may have the unique distinction of having created an entire new field of study, watched it blossom, and lived to see its demise,” Mr. Budiansky said.

“Alvarez said with only slight exaggeration that almost no one is working in the field of intelligence history any more. ‘Even the crazies seem to have lost energy,’ he said.  He was recently on a panel to award a prominent prize for the best paper in any aspect of cryptologic history.  Well past the deadline, they had received no entries at all.”

The main thrust of Mr. Budiansky’s lecture, entitled “What’s the Use of Cryptologic History?” (and not yet published), was not a plea for favoritism toward intelligence historians, but rather an argument for the importance of intelligence history — to the general understanding of history, and to the practice of intelligence itself.

As it happens, a new effort to expedite the declassification of historical records is now underway at the new National Declassification Center.  The Center has been tasked by President Obama with eliminating the backlog of more than 400 million pages of classified records that are more than 25 years old by the end of 2013.

Millions of newly declassified pages should be publicly available by the end of this month and each month thereafter, said Assistant Archivist Michael Kurtz on a conference call on June 4.

This is a well-intentioned effort that will almost certainly yield a significant increase in public access to declassified records.  But it also seems biased towards secrecy in two unfortunate ways.

First, the review of the backlog will be conducted on a Pass/Fail basis, Mr. Kurtz said.  That means that if a document contains any classified information at all, even a single word or number, the entire document will be withheld from release.  This approach may be necessary in order to gain some traction on the enormous backlog and to avoid getting bogged down in details.  But the regrettable consequence is that none of the unclassified contents of many partly classified documents will be disclosed through this process.  (The documents may be redacted for release at a later time through a Freedom of Information Act request or through a subsequent declassification review.)

Second, the documents that do pass the review and are declassified will be subjected to two quality control audits to ensure that no classified information has inadvertently passed through.  One audit will be performed by the Archives and a second audit will be done by the Department of Energy.  On the other hand, however, there will be no audit of withheld records to ensure that no unclassified record has been unnecessarily kept secret.  In effect, the process is tilted towards minimizing disclosures of classified information rather than maximizing disclosures of unclassified information.

The National Archives has prepared a draft prioritization plan to guide its declassification activities, and has invited public input on the plan.  A public forum on the subject will be held on June 23.

No Responses to “Declassification and the “Crisis” in Intelligence History”

  1. C Ronk June 11, 2010 at 10:45 AM #

    I often read Secrecy News, always impressed, and thankful for its existence, but frequently missing up on some analysis of, or comment on, the obvious relationship between government secrecy and the political power of those within (and sometimes without) the government who control the flow of information; and also some notion that there is base political self-interest at work, beyond such “innocent” phenomena as inefficient administrative bureaucracy, or inter-agency competitiveness, or sheer incompetence, which clogs the classification system. Even Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew — and he said it plainly — that secrecy is a form of regulation. In this case, with the possible total disappearance of intelligence history in view, one famous quote from George Orwell leaps to mind: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

    Perhaps it is not the business of Secrecy News to deal with this type of “political question”, being more factual in aim, but as a reader of the blog I have from time to time come upon certain implicit explanations for the chronic hugger-muggery we see in the classification system which appears to overlook the ordinary human desire for power.

    Needless to say, every document, or part thereof, released becomes a precedent for the next, and then the next, and so on, each time coming closer, theoretically, to total disclosure, or to undermining the ability to control the flow of information altogether. It would be naïve to think that those with the power to control information do not approach this issue with this trajectory in mind. Fundamentally, I think that this is why getting documents out of the government will forever resemble pulling teeth.

  2. Steven Aftergood June 11, 2010 at 11:10 AM #

    Thanks for the interesting comment. I’m sure you are correct that there is a powerful streak of self-interest at work in classification policy. And maybe I should do more to make that clear. On the other hand, I don’t think the whole system can be reduced to self-interest or public perception management. If that were the case, there would be no initiative on the government side to accelerate declassification or to revise classification standards. But there is. Not only that, but efforts to modify secrecy policy have, on occasion, succeeded well beyond the tooth-pulling mode. I want them to succeed again.

    I wrote about some of these broader issues last year in a paper called Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works (pdf).

  3. C Ronk June 11, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

    Thanks Steven, Keep up your good work.