New FRUS Volume Shows Declass Strengths, Weaknesses

A new volume of the State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on the war in Vietnam, published this month, embodies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the government document declassification program.

The new FRUS volume presents an exceptionally vivid and interesting account of the Nixon Administration’s conduct of the war, beginning with the aftermath of the invasion of Cambodia.  It also “documents President Nixon’s penchant for secret operations and covert warfare.”  Several such secret operations “are documented in some detail to demonstrate the role of covert actions in support of overt political and military operations.”  See “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970-January 1972,” published September 8, 2010.

While the 1100 page volume (pdf) provides rich testimony to the value of the declassification process, it also highlights its surprising limitations.

For one thing, the process is painfully slow.  Declassification review of this volume took four years, the Preface states, from 2006 to 2010.  At that glacial rate, the State Department will never fulfill its statutory obligation to publish the record of U.S. foreign policy no later than 30 years after the fact.

What’s worse is that U.S. government agencies continue to use an obsolete template for making declassification decisions.  So while various covert actions are “documented in some detail,” the amount of money spent on those same covert actions is scrupulously redacted at more than a dozen points with the parenthetical notation “dollar amount not declassified” — as if the publication of these budget figures could possibly have any bearing on national security today.

Adding to the evident confusion, the dollar figures for covert action were nevertheless published in one of the documents (document 202 at page 617), which notes that “Funds in the amount of $235,000 for FY 1971 and $228,000 for FY 1972 were approved [for certain covert actions].”

Was this a declassification “error”?  A publishing oversight?  It’s not clear.

Susan Weetman, the General Editor of the FRUS series, said that the publication decisions on covert actions were determined by the so-called “High Level Panel” (HLP) which is comprised of senior representatives of the State Department, CIA and National Security Council.

“While the release of some dollar amounts and the excision of others may appear inconsistent, it has been the policy of the HLP to approve the declassification of the overall budget figure for a covert action (occasionally broken out by fiscal year), but not release the specifics of how the money was spent,” Ms. Weetman told Secrecy News.

In the present case, however, there is an unusual amount of detail about “how the money was spent.”  It’s just the dollar figures that (in most cases) have been withheld.

The release of this FRUS volume, along with another volume on Vietnam published September 16, was timed to coincide with an upcoming State Department Office of the Historian conference on “The American Experience in Southeast Asia, 1946-1975″.

One of the recurring themes in the Vietnam covert action volume is the prevalence of leaks of classified information, and the need to take drastic action to combat them.

“You will see leaks all over town in the next few weeks on this issue,” Henry Kissinger told a group of Congressmen at a March 23, 1971 meeting “because the intelligence community is like a hysterical group of Talmudic scholars doing an exegesis of abstruse passages.  If any of you are on an intelligence subcommittee, you might find this a good reason to cut the budget for the intelligence agencies,” Kissinger suggested (at page 466).

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