Management Crisis Threatens “Foreign Relations” Series

02.12.09 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

A management crisis in the State Department Office of the Historian threatens the future of the official “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series that documents the history of U.S. foreign policy, according to a newly disclosed report on the situation.

“We find that the current working atmosphere in the HO [Historian’s Office] and between the HO and the HAC [Historical Advisory Committee] poses real threats to the high scholarly quality of the FRUS series and the benefits it brings,” the January 13, 2009 report to the Secretary of State said.  A copy of the report (pdf) was obtained by Secrecy News.

The report was commissioned in December by then-Secretary Condoleezza Rice following the dramatic resignation of the chairman of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee Prof. W. Roger Louis as well as escalating complaints from fellow HAC members, staff, colleagues, and others.  (See “State Dept: Crisis in the ‘Foreign Relations’ Series,” Secrecy News, December 11, 2008.)

At first glance, the new report is rather anticlimactic.  It does not even mention the name of the State Department Historian, Dr. Marc J. Susser, who has been the focus of the complaints regarding mismanagement.  It also does not explore, much less resolve, any of the specific personnel disputes that have arisen in the Office.  (“It quickly became apparent that emotions ran high and that there was a great deal of contradictory testimony,” the report says.  “Reconciling the contradictions seemed both unlikely… and unproductive.”)

But on closer inspection, the report makes at least two crucial points.  First, it confirms that the crisis is real.  Out of several dozen people who were interviewed and consulted, “only a single person suggested that there was no crisis, no problem beyond what is normal in an office.”

Second, regardless of who may be to blame, “we believe that effective management is the responsibility of the managers, not the managed….”  In other words, the Office leadership, including the Historian himself, has failed to manage the Office in an appropriate manner.

The review therefore delicately recommends “serious consideration of a reorganization” of the Office of the Historian.

The nature of such a potential reorganization was not spelled out in the new report.  Conceivably, it could imply removal of current management, or rearrangement of existing functions to place the FRUS series under new authority, or something else.  In the meantime, the search for a new General Editor of the FRUS series has been suspended pending a decision about how to proceed.  (The previous General Editor resigned abruptly last year in a sign of the growing turmoil in the Office.)

“At this point no decisions have been made as to next steps concerning the Office of the Historian,” State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told Secrecy News on February 6.

There are several complicating factors that will impede prompt correction of the situation.  Bad management is not a firing offense in the U.S. government.  Even if the Historian has lost the confidence of a sizable fraction of his colleagues and subordinates, that does not mean he can be summarily removed.  To the contrary, he has strong civil service protections as a member of the Senior Executive Service.  By law (5 U.S.C. 3395) he “may not be involuntarily reassigned” within 120 days after the appointment of a new agency head.  Nor can the significant expertise of now-departed staff members be quickly reconstituted.  For these reasons, and because of the myriad other issues involved in restoring the vitality of the FRUS production process, no short-term resolution of the problem is in sight.

“The Historical Advisory Committee has long been concerned about two interrelated issues,” said the new HAC chairman Prof. Robert J. McMahon last week, namely “the obvious morale problems among the staff and an alarming turnover among experienced FRUS editors. Those two issues, in our judgment, will inevitably lead to a slowdown in the production of FRUS volumes and we are concerned that the series is already years away from coming even close to the legislatively-mandated 30-year deadline.”  (By statute, FRUS is supposed to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions” not more than 30 years after the events described.)  The next scheduled meeting of the HAC is March 2-3.

I should mention that I have had some limited, negative interaction with Dr. Susser, the State Department Historian.  After I wrote something critical of FRUS and the Historian’s Office that he disapproved of, he removed me from the distribution list for hardcopy volumes of the series.  This action might have been justified as a cost-cutting measure, particularly since I am not a professional historian and Secrecy News is not a public library.  But the punitive aspect of the move was, I thought, unseemly.  (See “Secrecy News Purged from State Dept History Mailing List,” Secrecy News, June 12, 2008.)  However, I don’t consider that episode to be part of the current controversy.

It also bears mentioning on this 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln that the venerable FRUS series dates back to the Lincoln Administration.