Something “Very Wrong” in State Dept History Office

06.08.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

An Inspector General review (pdf) of the State Department Office of the Historian (HO) last month confirmed that there were serious management defects in the Office and recommended reassignment of its Director as well as other changes.

The Office of the Historian is responsible for production of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, which is the official documentary history of U.S. foreign policy and one of the most important vehicles for declassification of historical records.

Allegations of mismanagement and declining performance had surrounded the Office for years until the Chairman of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee, Prof. Wm. Roger Louis, resigned last December to dramatize his concerns that the FRUS series was “at risk.” (See “State Dept: Crisis in the ‘Foreign Relations’ Series,” Secrecy News, December 11, 2008).

“In varying degrees, nearly 75 percent of the present HO employees interviewed … were critical of the way the office is run,” the IG reported.  “They alleged favoritism, cronyism, a lack of transparency, lack of interest in the FRUS, disparagement of the staff, suspicion, an absence of leadership, and, in general, the creation of an unhappy workplace.”

With plummeting employee morale and departures of experienced staff historians, “something in HO is very wrong,” the Inspector General concluded.  “HO is suffering from, and has for some time been handicapped by, serious mismanagement for which the director must be held accountable…. Despite any mitigating factors that may exist in favor of the director, this situation cannot be allowed to continue.”

“It is a devastating indictment,” said Prof. Warren Kimball, a Rutgers historian who chaired an initial review of the situation earlier this year.  “Clearly the IG inspectors listened to what we had to say.  It does give one some faith in the State Department’s internal monitoring system — slow as it is.”

The IG recommended reassignment of the Director, Dr. Marc Susser, to another Department position, and he was in fact reassigned last month.  On May 27, the State Department appointed Ambassador John Campbell to serve as the new Acting Director of the Office of the Historian.  (See “After Critical Report, State Dept.’s Historian is Reassigned” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, June 8, 2009.)

See “Management Review of the Office of the Historian,” State Department Office of Inspector General, May 2009.

The IG review also underscored the difficulties facing the FRUS series, which is supposed to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary account of U.S. foreign policy within 30 years of the events described.  In the past, the foreign policy of the Eisenhower Administration was covered in 66 volumes of FRUS.  Despite a richer and more complex record, the Nixon-Ford years were allocated only 57 volumes.  For the Reagan Administration, which has a fuller record still, only 38 FRUS volumes are planned.

Under present circumstances, the task of the FRUS series, although mandated by law, is “almost unachievable,” the IG said.