The Role of the CIA Historical Review Panel

05.11.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The CIA Historical Review Panel, an advisory group which is composed of academic historians and political scientists, provides the CIA with recommendations on its declassification policies and priorities.  The role of the Panel was described lately by its chairman, Prof. Robert Jervis, in the latest issue of Passport (pdf, at pp. 10-13), the newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

Prof. Jervis is a brilliant political scientist, but under his leadership the Historical Review Panel has not been notably effective and his description of the Panel’s activities suggests why this may be so.

As a matter of policy, he writes, the Panel operates in secret and does not disclose “the substance of the recommendations we have made” concerning CIA declassification policy.  Why not?  Because “heads of agencies are entitled to confidential advice.”  But while this may often be true of advice from agency employees, it is not true of all advice from anyone.  Panel members do not work for the CIA.  In fact, they are supposed to represent a broad public interest, not merely a personal or professional self-interest, and so they reasonably could be expected to interact with those they represent.  Instead, by yielding to CIA’s preference for secrecy, the Panel not only severs its connection with its own constituency, it also neutralizes its primary source of leverage, namely public opinion.

Thus Prof. Jervis notes in passing that some recent episodes of “bad publicity” generated by inappropriate CIA reclassification actions had taught agency officials to “realize… [the] high cost” of spurious classification activity.  But since the Historical Review Panel deliberately operates without publicity, it is unlikely to inspire any similar realizations on the part of agency officials.

Prof. Jervis writes that the Panel has “spent hours talking to top CIA officials” about the declassification of historical intelligence community budget figures, although “I cannot reveal the positions we took.”  But there are a limited number of possibilities here.  If the Panel took the position that historical budget figures should remain classified indefinitely, then indeed it has been marvelously effective.  But if, as seems more likely, Panel members argued that such old budget numbers should be declassified, then its efforts have been in vain.

Declassification advisory panels that include public representation can serve a constructive role in shaping and overseeing agency declassification programs.  But the CIA Historical Review Panel serves mainly as a negative example of how the utility and the influence of such panels can be compromised.

See “The CIA and Declassification: The Role of the Historical Review Panel” by Robert Jervis, Passport, April 2009.