Barriers to Archival Access Stymie Historical Research

07.15.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Notwithstanding official proclamations of a new era of transparency, public access to declassified historical records continues to be obstructed by procedural potholes, limited resources for processing records, competing priorities and, sometimes, bad faith.

At the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), declassified files that used to be open to the public have been withdrawn indefinitely so that they may reviewed for inadvertent releases of classified nuclear weapons-related information, pursuant to the 1999 “Kyl-Lott” Amendment.  Nearly all Navy records there dating from the 1960s forward are now completely unavailable to the public, said historians Larry Berman of UC Davis and William Burr of the National Security Archive.

The blanket closure of entire collections, they suggested in an April 29 letter (pdf), is “wholly inconsistent with the spirit of the new presidential administration.”

As an alternative, Berman and Burr asked the Navy to at least permit expedited review of specific records in response to researcher interests, as the National Archives did when it implemented a similar Kyl-Lott review. Earlier this month, their proposal was denied.

“I regret to inform you that the Navy is unable to support your request at this time due to previously established government declassification priorities,” wrote Vice Admiral J.C. Harvey, Jr. (pdf), Director of the Navy Staff on July 1.

Not only that, he said, but the barriers preventing public access to Navy historical records will remain in place for at least several years to come.  “A Kyl-Lott review of the NHHC holdings may start in 2012 barring any change in, or additions to, government priorities.”

Until then, researchers interested in Navy history are stymied.  “Any researcher who wants to look at Navy records from the early 1960s forward is frozen out by this policy,” said Mr. Burr of the National Security Archive.  “If  David Vine, the author of the recent book on Diego Garcia ‘Island of Shame,’ which made good use of records at the Navy Yard, was starting his work this year he would be totally out of luck.”

Faced with such an uncompromising response, researchers can still employ the Freedom of Information Act, which is arguably even more burdensome for the government to implement but which is legally enforceable.

But Prof. Berman said this option was problematic as well.  The Navy “denied access to their finding aids because they feared this would ease my FOIA request,” he said.  And Navy officials also denied his request for a FOIA fee waiver on the extraordinary grounds that the records he requested will be used to support his work on the first scholarly biography of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.  “Imagine that, a historian plans to write a book,” he said.

It is well established in FOIA case law that scholarship, like news gathering, is not a private commercial interest that would disqualify a requester from receiving a fee waiver.  Prof. Berman said he would appeal the denial.