NSA Records Languish at National Archives for Now

Last year, the National Archives (NARA) acquired a large number of historically valuable National Security Agency records. But they remain inaccessible to researchers, at least for the time being.

David Langbart of NARA described the situation at a closed meeting of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee late last year. According to recently published minutes of that meeting:

“The [NSA] records consist of approximately 19,000 folders without any real arrangement. These records mostly consist of technical, analytical, historical, operational, and translation reports and related materials. Most of the records date from the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but there are also documents from the 1920s and 1930s and even earlier. The NSA reviewed the records for declassification before accessioning and most documents and folder titles remain classified. Langbart concluded that the finding aid prepared by NSA was the only practical way to locate documents of interest for researchers, but it is 557 pages long and is classified.”

The National Archives confirmed that this description remains accurate today.

So not only are these thousands of half-century-old records still classified or otherwise unavailable, but the finding aid that would enable researchers to locate specific documents of interest is itself a classified document.

The Federation of American Scientists asked NSA officials to voluntarily declassify the 557-page finding aid as a first step towards making the NARA collection useful to researchers.

They agreed to do so.

“We can have a redacted version for you by September,” wrote Dr. David J. Sherman of NSA. “We of course will provide one to NARA as well.”

Dr. Sherman noted that the collection includes documents of widely varying complexity. “Judging by their titles, some almost certainly require significant training in mathematics and engineering to understand.  Others appear to have been written for more general audiences.”

Furthermore, although the collection as a whole is maintained as classified, “just under one third of the folders appear to be unclassified in full,” he estimated.

Under the circumstances, classifying the entire set of records along with its descriptive catalog was obviously not optimal, he agreed.

“I take the point about this foreclosing any possibility for researchers to know what might be available in the collection and agree it is something we should have addressed in this instance and need to fix in the future,” Dr. Sherman said.

Therefore, he added, “in any similar situations in the future — i.e. ones where we are transferring large, mixed collection such as this — we’ll make it standard practice to consider whether the percentage of unclassified materials is high enough to provide NARA with a redacted finding aid at the time of the transfer.”

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown: A Reassessment

The role of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in managing the Pentagon, boosting the military and confronting the Soviet Union during the Jimmy Carter Administration is examined in a new Department of Defense historical volume that was declassified and published this month.

It was during Secretary Brown’s tenure that the Carter Administration reversed a decline in defense spending and began a military buildup that is usually associated with the Reagan Administration. Stealth aircraft, precision bombs, cruise missiles and other new weapons programs were championed by Brown, a physicist, and brought into production.

“Unlike previous secretaries of defense, Brown faced the Soviet Union at the apex of its Cold War military might,” wrote historian Edward Keefer in the new DoD volume. “Flush from new discoveries of oil and natural gas in an era of high energy prices, the Soviet Union of the Carter years came closer to matching the United States in strategic power than it had in any other period. By most reckonings, the Kremlin held advantages over the West in conventional weapons and forces in central Europe. Brown and his staff worked diligently and creatively to offset the formidable Soviet military challenge. Yet the achievements Brown amassed as secretary have been overshadowed by one horrendous failure, the Iran hostage rescue mission. As a result, history has paid scant attention to his successes. Similarly, it has ignored the foundation that the Carter administration built for the Reagan revolution in defense. This volume aims to remedy the oversight.”

“This is an authorized history, but not an official one,” wrote DoD Chief Historian Erin R. Mahan. “There is a distinction.” That is, it is based on authorized access to classified source materials and underwent internal peer review, but it represents the author’s own judgment.

Among other areas of friction and public controversy, Secretary Brown defended the nuclear weapon targeting policy set forth in Carter’s Presidential Directive 59. “To liberal arms control advocates, such as the Federation of American Scientists, PD 59 seemed warlike and dangerous,” the Pentagon history said.

See Harold Brown: Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977-1981, Office of the Secretary of Defense, June 2017, 840 pages.

The new volume is the latest in a series of scholarly histories of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and one of several new publications from the OSD History Office.

Iran 1953 Covert History Quietly Released

The Department of State yesterday released a long-suppressed volume of historical records documenting the role of the United States in the 1953 coup against the Iranian government of Mohammad Mosadeq.

“This retrospective volume focuses on the evolution of U.S. thinking on Iran as well as the U.S. Government covert operation that resulted in Mosadeq’s overthrow on August 19, 1953,” the Preface says. See Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1952-1954, Iran, 1951-1954.

“This volume includes National Security Council and Presidential materials that document the U.S. decision to proceed with the operation against Mosadeq, and the operational files within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that document the implementation of the operation, codenamed TPAJAX.”

Some of the relevant records were destroyed long ago.

“The original CIA cables relating to the implementation of the covert action TPAJAX no longer exist. The original TPAJAX operational cables appear to have been destroyed as part of an office purge undertaken in 1961 or 1962, in anticipation of Near East (NE) Division’s move to the Central Intelligence Agency’s new headquarters.”

However, “Department of State historians obtained hand-typed transcriptions of microfilmed copies of these cables” and “twenty-one are published in this volume and an additional seven are referenced in footnotes.”

A small portion of the 1,000-page collection remains classified.

“The declassification review of this volume, which began in 2004 and was completed in 2014, resulted in the decision to withhold 10 documents in full, excise a paragraph or more in 38 documents, and make minor excisions of less than a paragraph in 82 documents,” the editors wrote. Without knowing for certain, some of the withheld information may pertain to discussion of British involvement in the operation, as well as technical details such as cryptonyms.

Rectifying a “Fraud”

The release of the Iran history volume is the culmination — and apparently the resolution — of decades of controversy that began in 1989 after the Department published a FRUS volume on US-Iran relations between 1951 and 1954 that neglected to mention any covert operation against the Iran government. That earlier volume was widely denounced by US historians and others.

“The omissions combine to make the Iran volume in the period of 1952–54 a fraud,” wrote historian Bruce R. Kuniholm in 1990.

“This is ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark — or the ghost,” the New York Times editorialized back then.

Over time, the State Department itself came to agree with that critical assessment.

“The Department’s self-censorship exemplified, but also obscured, the restrictive impulses toward historical transparency that prevailed throughout the U.S. Government” at the time, according to a candid and thoughtful State Department history of the Foreign Relations series. “FRUS historians could have been more assertive in their efforts to promote greater openness in the 1980s. They should have recognized that the [1989] Iran volume was too incomplete to be published without damaging the series’s reputation.”

On the plus side, “Academic criticism of the [1989] ‘Iran Volume’ and the restrictions placed on [advisory committee] access to classified material raised public and congressional awareness of the erosion of transparency in the 1980s.”

This in turn led to enactment in 1991 of a new statutory requirement that the FRUS series must provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy.”

But at the end of the Obama Administration, and as recently as April of this year, release of the Iran retrospective volume seemed to be indefinitely blocked.

In 2016, “the Department of State did not permit publication of the long-delayed Iran Retrospective volume because it judged the political environment too sensitive,” the Department’s Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) wrote in its latest annual report. “The HAC was unsuccessful in its efforts to meet with [then-]Secretary Kerry to discuss the volume, and now there is no timetable for its release.”

And then yesterday, all of a sudden and with minimal notice, it was posted online. The publication was welcomed by the chair of the Historical Advisory Committee, Temple University historian Richard H. Immerman.

“As it expressed in last year’s annual report, the HAC was repeatedly frustrated–and disappointed–by Secretary Kerry’s refusal to allow the volume’s publication,” Prof. Immerman said yesterday. “In this regard the change in State’s perspective from the Obama to Trump administration is dramatic.”

There is no known evidence that Secretary of State Tillerson participated in the decision to permit publication. But, an official said, “there is no question that receiving approval to publish the volume was much less difficult with the change of administrations. Indeed, it encountered remarkably little resistance.”

Evidently wishing to downplay its significance, however, the State Department buried an announcement of the new volume at the bottom of a June 15 press release. After listing 16 other publications, it briefly mentioned that the Iran retrospective volume had “also” been released, making no mention of the decades-long controversy leading up to its publication.

Needless to say, the sky has not fallen due to the disclosure, and is not expected to. US relations with Iran will remain as fraught in the near future as they have been in the recent past. (The Senate voted yesterday 98-2 in favor of sanctions on Iran in connection with that country’s “ballistic missile program, support for acts of international terrorism, and violations of human rights.”)

But a pointless and misleading omission in the historical record has now been rectified.

“The public and scholarly community owes a great debt to not only the remarkable effort and perseverance of literally generations of State Department historians and the [History] Office’s leadership, but also their collective commitment to historical accuracy and transparency,” said Prof. Immerman.

Bethe, Oppenheimer and Teller: Their Accomplishments

In 1959, physicists Hans Bethe, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller were candidates to receive the Enrico Fermi Award for contributions to the development of atomic energy.

In a newly discovered letter written in June 1959, Los Alamos physicist Norris Bradbury provided his evaluation of the achievements of each of the three eminent scientists. His letter was published last month for the first time, with an introduction by historian Roger Meade. See Bethe, Oppenheimer, Teller and the Fermi Award: Norris Bradbury Speaks, Los Alamos National Laboratory, April 28, 2017.

After assessing the accomplishments of the three of them at some length, Bradbury concluded that they were all deserving of the Fermi Award.

“I have no solution to this dilemma to propose other than the not entirely facetious suggestion that a joint award to all three individuals be made — with the additional proviso that it would be expected to make the same triply joint award for the two following years!”

As it turned out, Dr. Meade recalled in a footnote, Bethe received the award in 1961, Teller received it in 1962, and Oppenheimer in 1963.

Notes on Los Alamos, 1953

A previously unpublished account of life in the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in the early 1950s describes a community determined to achieve, and to present, a semblance of conventional suburban life. It was circulated last month by Los Alamos historian Roger A. Meade.

“In 1954 an unknown author drafted a report, reprinted below, describing the Laboratory and the community as they existed in late 1953,” Meade wrote. “This report, perhaps intended to be crafted into a public relations document, is valuable because it gives us an autobiographical look at Los Alamos during the first half of the 1950s.”

“First-time visitors to Los Alamos often come with a preconceived notion that the will find something awesome and abnormal about the Los Alamos community,” the report says. “They leave, however, with the feeling of having visited an interesting but a perfectly ‘normal’ American community.”

“Los Alamos has fourteen churches representing nearly all denominations. Land for church buildings is available on 99-year leases at a nominal fee.”

“Los Alamos offers a wide selection of cultural and recreational activities. Presentations are made regularly in the commodious Civic Auditorium by such groups as the Civic Orchestra, the Concert Association, the Little Theatre, the Film Society, and the Los Alamos Concert Band. There are frequent lectures and forums; many distinguished speakers have appeared at the Civic Auditorium. Two motion picture theaters have continuous daily showings.”

See Notes on Los Alamos, Report No. LA-UR-17-22764, published April 5, 2017.

History of Iran Covert Action Deferred Indefinitely

A declassified U.S. Government documentary history of the momentous 1953 coup in Iran, in which Central Intelligence Agency personnel participated, had been the object of widespread demand from historians and others for decades. In recent years, it finally seemed to be on the verge of publication.

But now its release has been postponed indefinitely.

Last year, “the Department of State did not permit publication of the long-delayed Iran Retrospective volume because it judged the political environment too sensitive,” according to a new annual report from the State Department Historical Advisory Committee (HAC). “The HAC was severely disappointed.”

“The HAC was unsuccessful in its efforts to meet with [then-]Secretary Kerry to discuss the volume, and now there is no timetable for its release,” the new report stated.

The controversy originally arose in 1989 when the State Department published its official history of US foreign relations with Iran that somehow made no mention of the 1953 CIA covert action against the Mossadeq government, triggering protests and ridicule.

That lapse led to enactment of a 1992 statute requiring the Foreign Relations of the United States series to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary history of US foreign policy. The State Department also agreed to prepare a supplemental retrospective volume on Iran to correct the record. The retrospective volume is what now appears to be out of reach.

In truth, a fair amount of documentation related to the events of 1953 in Iran has been declassified and released. It is unclear how much more of significance remains to be disclosed. (Those who have read the missing volume say there is at least some new substance to it.)

But the position taken by the Obama State Department that 60 year old policy documents are too politically sensitive to be released is disheartening in any case.

Instead of disrupting relations with Iran, which are already fraught, an honest official U.S. account of events in 1953 might actually have elicited a constructive response. But that argument, advanced by the Historical Advisory Committee and its Chairman, Prof. Richard H. Immerman, did not get the serious consideration it deserved.

More broadly, the new annual report of the HAC did identify a few bright spots. One volume of the Foreign Relations series that was released last year met the statutory deadline for publication within 30 years of the events it describes. That hasn’t happened for two decades.

Overall, however, “the declassification environment is discouraging,” the HAC report found.

Information Operations: It Takes a Thief

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday on foreign cyber threats to the U.S., there were several references to the saying that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” The point, made by DNI James Clapper, was that the U.S. should not be too quick to penalize the very espionage practices that U.S. intelligence agencies rely upon, including clandestine collection of information from foreign computer networks.

But perhaps a more pertinent saying would be “It takes a thief to catch a thief.”

U.S. intelligence agencies should be well-equipped to recognize Russian cyber threats and political intervention since they have been tasked for decades to carry out comparable efforts.

A newly disclosed intelligence directive from 1999 addresses “information operations” (IO), which are defined as: “Actions taken to affect adversary information and information systems while defending one’s own information and information systems.”

“Although still evolving, the fundamental concept of IO is to integrate different activities to affect [adversary] decision making processes, information systems, and supporting information infrastructures to achieve specific objectives.”

The elements of information operations may include computer network attack, computer network exploitation, and covert action.

See Director of Central Intelligence Directive 7/3, Information Operations and Intelligence Community Related Activities, effective 01 July 1999.

The directive was declassified (in part) on December 2 by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, and was first obtained and published by GovernmentAttic.org.

Revisiting Intelligence History

Earlier this month the Director of National Intelligence asked intelligence community historians to recommend topics in the history of intelligence which, if declassified and disclosed, “would help the public better understand the work of the IC and contribute to a public dialogue surrounding significant historical events.”

DNI James R. Clapper directed that historical topics shall be provided to the DNI for proposed declassification review “on a semi-annual basis.” IC historians are to “collaborate with other public historians or private subject-matter experts to solicit input for such topics,” he wrote in a December 9 memorandum.

In itself, this DNI directive is not a very significant step. It does not make any specific commitments, it is not enforceable, and it does not allocate any new resources. Above all, it does not set forth new criteria for declassification of historical materials. This is a serious omission, since records which qualify for declassification under existing criteria are supposed to be declassified anyway, without the need for a new procedure.

Nevertheless, the latest memorandum adds at least a dash of momentum to a series of steps that have been taken by DNI Clapper to advance intelligence-related transparency, and that cumulatively may help to keep it alive as a topic of policy deliberation. Those other steps include the creation of IC on the Record (where the new memorandum first appeared), the issuance of IC “Transparency Principles,” the creation of an IC Transparency Council, and especially the DNI’s active embrace of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review process, which should pay dividends in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, “over-classification” has recently been flagged by the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board as an issue requiring the attention of the next Administration.

*

These days, intelligence history is not just for historians. One historical topic that is timely and that might be fitting for comprehensive treatment by declassifiers concerns the role of intelligence agencies in tampering with foreign elections.

“The United States cannot in good faith decry what has been done to its decent citizens until it is ready to face what it did so often to the equally decent citizens of other nations,” wrote Ariel Dorfman, referring to the CIA intervention in Chile’s elections in the 1970s (“Now, America, You Know How Chileans Felt,” New York Times, December 16).

“The C.I.A. got its start trying to influence the outcome of Italy’s elections in 1948, as the author Tim Weiner documented in his book ‘Legacy of Ashes,’ in an effort to keep Communists from taking power,” wrote David Sanger, also in the Times. The US went on to interfere in elections in Iran, Guatemala, and Japan, he noted.

In Indonesia, the CIA reportedly made a pornographic film in 1957 featuring an actor disguised as the disfavored leader Sukarno that was intended to embarrass him, according to the 1976 book Portrait of a Cold Warrior by former CIA officer Joseph Burkholder Smith.

*

The current classification system “is broken,” wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Washington Post. It is too complicated, too expensive, and rewards overclassification.

“We… must do what we can to change incentives to further encourage government personnel to classify at the lowest appropriate levels and for the shortest durations,” she wrote. See “How to rethink what’s ‘top secret’ for the Internet age,” December 16.

While official attention to classification policy is most welcome, the fact that a senior legislator like Sen. Feinstein would resort to writing an op-ed on the subject might be understood as a tacit signal that a legislative solution is currently out of reach.

But that is not necessarily true. I suggested some (comparatively) easy incremental steps that Congress could take to begin to combat overclassification in a statement presented at a hearing of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee on December 7.

Melvin Laird: A Declassified History

Melvin R. Laird, who served as Secretary of Defense during the Nixon Administration, passed away on November 16. His tenure as Secretary was described in an official history published last year by the Department of Defense that is based in part on classified government archives.

“Although the text has been declassified, some of the official sources cited in the volume may remain classified,” wrote DoD historian Erin R. Mahan in a Foreword. The 732-page volume was authored by historian Richard A. Hunt. See Melvin Laird and the Foundation of the Post-Vietnam Military, 1969-1973, Volume 7 of the Secretaries of Defense Historical Series, 2015.

“Laird’s tenure as secretary coincided with significant changes in national security policy,” Dr. Mahan wrote. “Faced with an NSC system that consolidated policymaking in the White House, Laird used his political canniness and bureaucratic skill to stymie the attempts of Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger to assert greater control over the defense program.”

“Laird was fully involved in planning the Breakfast bombing [of Cambodia in 1969] but disagreed with Nixon and Kissinger about doing it clandestinely,” Dr. Hunt wrote. “He later explained, ‘I told Nixon you couldn’t keep the bombing in Cambodia secret. . . . It was going to come out anyway and it would build distrust. . . . I was all for hitting those targets in Cambodia, but I wanted it public, because I could justify before Congress and the American people that these were occupied territories of the North Vietnamese, no longer Cambodian territory. I could have made that case, but they [Nixon and Kissinger] thought it was important to keep it secret’.”

CIA Releases Draft History of Bay of Pigs

The Central Intelligence Agency yesterday released a long-sought draft of the fifth volume of its internal history of the 1961 invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

The release was among the first tangible results of this year’s amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which imposed a 25 year limit on the exemption for “deliberative” files. As a result, the 1984 draft history could no longer be legally withheld.

CIA said in a cover note that “This fifth draft volume was not publishable in its present form, in the judgment of CIA Chief Historians as well as other reviewers, because of serious shortcomings in scholarship, its polemical tone, and its failure to add significantly to an understanding of the controversy over the Bay of Pigs operation.”

Indeed, the new “volume is strange, in some respects, and interesting,” said Villanova Prof. David M. Barrett, who had filed a lawsuit last summer for release of the draft history.

“Essentially, it is a critical history of the Inspector General’s critical report on Bay of Pigs, which mainly blamed CIA incompetence for the failure at Bay of Pigs.  [The author, CIA historian Jack] Pfeiffer says IG Lyman Kirkpatrick’s report was, itself, biased and incompetent.  Pfeiffer says the most obvious cause of failure at Bay of Pigs was JFK’s decision to cancel a planned 2nd airstrike in support of the invaders at Bay of Pigs,” Barrett said.

He noted several highlights:

Author Pfeiffer describes one of the IG report’s authors as probably mentally ill (p. 75).  Writing in about 1983, Pfeiffer says that CIA had kept the IG report and other internal analyses of Bay of Pigs classified Secret in order to avoid airing its “dirty laundry.” (p. 4).

Pfeiffer says CIA hired a couple of people to write the true story of Bay of Pigs with the hope of having Life Magazine or another outlet publish it.  Only State Dept objections stopped that from being pursued, though the authors did write the article. (p. 87-90)

At the end, Pfeiffer suggests in a footnote that the history program (where he worked!) should probably be abolished, and the raw materials it possessed should be destroyed; the Operations Directorate was hostile to it, and it was hard to see the point of the program. (p. 146) [Correction: The views expressed in the footnote on page 146 are those of other CIA officials, not Pfeiffer’s.]

“Not quite earth-shaking history, but I think the real story is that CIA spent much effort and money over the past 5 years to prevent [release] of this document,” Barrett said.

The National Security Archive, which had previously filed suit to obtain the document, hailed its release here.