FRUS Leads Declassification, but Sometimes Lags Behind

10.25.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

At its best, the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series serves as a driver of declassification, propelling it farther and faster than it would otherwise go.  But it’s not always at its best.

In 1992, Congress enacted a law concerning FRUS that represented one of only a couple of continuing statutory requirements to conduct declassification of official records.  (The Atomic Energy Act, which also imposes continuing declassification requirements, is the other statute that comes to mind.)  The 1992 law directed the State Department to publish FRUS in such a way as to provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions” and to do so “not more than 30 years after the events recorded.”  This implied an ongoing obligation to declassify historical records in a timely fashion.

The State Department has never met the statutory 30 year deadline.  Nor has Congress effectively required that it do so.  In fact, Congress has not even conducted regular oversight of the FRUS program, which has experienced significant turmoil in recent years.

But the statute has not been altogether forgotten or ignored, either.  In numerous areas of historical research, FRUS represents the vanguard of declassification, opening up otherwise inaccessible collections for the first time.  This is notably true in the latest FRUS volume on “National Security Policy” published last week.  It includes previously unreleased material declassified specifically for FRUS, “some of it extracted from still-classified documents.”

On the other hand, because the FRUS declassification process is often so slow and prolonged, it can produce erratic and misleading results.  The latest FRUS volume began a declassification review in 2005 that was not completed until 2011.  This created the awkward circumstance that information which may have been properly classified in 2005 could be withheld from release in FRUS in 2011 despite the fact that the information had ceased to be classified in the interim.

Thus, the new FRUS volume included a redacted version of President Nixon’s 1971 National Security Decision Memorandum 128 on the FY 1972-1974 Nuclear Weapons Stockpile (Document 196).  “The President approves a total stockpile of [deleted] for the end of FY 1973 and a total stockpile [deleted] for the end of FY 1974,” according to the FRUS version which treats the stockpile numbers as still-classified information.

This version of the document fails to recognize that the stockpile totals for 1973 and 1974 (among other years) were declassified by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy in May 2010.

Yet this information cannot be found in the new FRUS volume, suggesting a need for improved coordination of the declassification process to make it even more productive.