Historian Anna K. Nelson, RIP

10.22.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

We were sad to learn that Professor Anna K. Nelson, a tenacious and effective advocate for improved public access to national security records, passed away last month.

For decades, Prof. Nelson argued for improved declassification practices in almost every venue imaginable, from congressional hearings to the most obscure and transient advisory bodies.  As a professor of history at American University, she insisted that government records were public property and that access to such records was one of the foundations of good citizenship.

Among many other posts, she served as a presidentially-appointed member of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board, which was tasked to oversee the declassification of records concerning the assassination of President Kennedy.  Because of the perseverance of Dr. Nelson and her colleagues, that Board was uniquely productive in overcoming longstanding barriers to declassification, particularly those pertaining to intelligence agency records.

Nevertheless, she was habitually pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful secrecy reform.

“Given past performance, it is highly unrealistic to assume that agencies, particularly Defense and the CIA, will be completely forthcoming or that the Archives will ever question agency decisions,” she wrote in a 2000 letter to Congress. “Agency declassification of selected, heavily redacted records will not serve the public interest. It will only breed more suspicion.”

Prof. Nelson also spoke out in defense of robust investigative reporting on national security matters.  In 2008, for example, she submitted a declaration of behalf of New York Times reporter James Risen, arguing that a grand jury subpoena against him in the pending leak case against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling should be quashed.

“If Mr. Risen and other investigative journalists are unable to report effectively on matters of intelligence, the historical record will be incomplete, if not erroneous,” Dr. Nelson wrote.

“Although our own books and articles are stuffed with footnotes, we historians understand that investigative journalists, as observers of the present, must protect their sources. If they do not, the American people will never learn about corruption, incompetence, excessive government secrecy, flaws in homeland security, or disastrous decisions made by policy makers who are advised by their intelligence chiefs,” she wrote. “We must depend upon journalists and journalists must be permitted to depend upon confidential sources.”

See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship: Creative Perspectives on Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence 

To empower new voices to start their career in nuclear weapons studies, the Federation of American Scientists launched the New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship. Here’s what our inaugural cohort accomplished.

11.28.23 | 3 min read
read more
Science Policy
Expected Utility Forecasting for Science Funding

Common frameworks for evaluating proposals leave this utility function implicit, often evaluating aspects of risk, uncertainty, and potential value independently and qualitatively.

11.20.23 | 11 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Notebook: Nuclear Weapons Sharing, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

11.17.23 | 1 min read
read more
Social Innovation
Community School Approach Reaches High of 60%, Reports Latest Pulse Panel

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year.

11.17.23 | 4 min read
read more