Secrecy News

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.