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.”