The National Security Archive
The George Washington University
Gelman Library, Suite 701
2130 H Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037
FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST
ON BEHALF OF
NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE
THE HUMAN RIGHTS INFORMATION ACT (H.R. 2635)
THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT REFORM AND OVERSIGHT
SUBCOMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT MANAGEMENT, INFORMATION AND TECHNOLOGY
May 11, 1998
On behalf of the National Security Archive, I thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to discuss H.R. 2635, the Human Rights Information Act. The National Security Archive is an independent, non-profit research institute and library located at George Washington University which collects and publishes declassified records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Founded in 1985 by a group of journalists and scholars, the Archive has, over the years, become the world's largest nongovernmental repository of declassified documents, with holdings of more than 1.7 million pages of material available to outside researchers through published and archived collections.
The Archive's interest in this bill derives from our long-standing efforts to promote the public's right to government information -- including information about traditionally sensitive issues of national security and foreign policy -- to press for increased openness in government, and to challenge excessive government secrecy. Our interest also lies in our close acquaintance with the efforts of Latin Americans to press for accountability of their own governments, especially in the protection of human rights. Although the Archive does not advocate for or against any specific U.S. government policy or legislation except in favor of greater freedom of information, we are committed to speaking out for the people's "right to know," and so we welcome the opportunity to comment on the bill before you today.
The Human Rights Information Act is an important step toward balancing the government's need for secrecy and the requirements of an open and democratic society. Its purpose is simple. The bill offers nations of Latin America and the Caribbean that have experienced tremendous violence-- and whose citizens have suffered from the worst kinds of human rights atrocities -- the chance to obtain from U.S. archives urgently-needed information for official investigations into these abuses. To that end, the bill establishes a straightforward, legislative framework to regulate the release of records by:
1. Requiring agencies to respond in a timely and substantive manner to requests from Latin American and Caribbean governments, international entities and official truth commissions for information on human rights abuses;
2. Requiring agencies to use declassification standards that are more forthcoming than those presently available under the Freedom of Information Act -- to wit, standards already articulated in the JFK Assassination Records Act; and
3. Requiring review of agency decisions to withhold information by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (established in Executive Order 12958), and creating two new positions on the panel for experts in human rights to participate in the declassification review of human rights information.
The bill's objectives are consistent with U.S. foreign policy goals in Latin America and the Caribbean. President Clinton has stated repeatedly -- and Congress has supported him -- that democracy, human rights and respect for the rule of law are central to U.S. policy in the region. The United States has spent huge sums of money and years of diplomatic energy to foster and reconciliation there. A crucial part of this effort is helping nations come to grips with the recent past in order to build a better future. Clarifying the truth about human rights is often a critical component to a country's struggle to promote the rule of law. As newly-democratic states in Latin America and the Caribbean confront their legacies of violence, the United States can assist them and simultaneously strengthen our own commitment to human rights by establishing a fair process by which these governments can obtain human rights records.
The Human Rights Information Act is also consistent with United States laws and policies reshaping our outdated secrecy and classification systems. During the cold war, we fashioned a vast architecture of secrecy to protect national security interests from the Communist threat. Now we are designing a system for the post-cold war age: one that acknowledges the need to preserve true secrets while ensuring broad public access to government records. As the United States creates secrecy and classification policies for the twenty-first century, we are slowly opening our cold war archives to our own citizens and to the world.
Both Congress and the executive branch have sought to change our culture of secrecy. Recent efforts include:
Paralleling these broad initiatives on openness have been a series of targeted declassifications on a range of important issues. In addition to documents on the Kennedy assassination, they have resulted in the release of the intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimates on the Soviet Union, thousands of formerly secret records on American POWs and MIAs, the Department of Energy's holdings on human radiation experiments, and the VENONA intercepts describing Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1940s. A new bill currently before Congress would open U.S. archives on Nazi war crimes.5
Thus efforts to radically transform United States secrecy policy since the end of the cold war have operated on two tracks. On the one hand, executive action and changes in the law have brought about comprehensive reforms in the overall system of secrecy and classification. At the same time, there have been mounting demands for more focused declassification on subjects of great public interest or urgency. Targeted releases of discrete document collections -- such as records concerning human rights abuses in Latin America which would be provided to the national and international investigating bodies that so desperately need them -- are, we believe, complementary actions that Congress and the President can take concurrently with an examination of the overall secrecy system.
Finally, the Human Rights Information Act is consistent with President Clinton's commitment to opening secret files on human rights abuses on Latin America the Caribbean to public scrutiny. With congressional support, this administration has done more than any other to help clarify the past by declassifying critical U.S. records on human rights in such countries as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In doing so, the administration has confronted some of the thorniest questions that face the government regarding the declassification of sensitive security matters. Guatemala offers a case in point. In June of 1996, President Clinton released his Intelligence Oversight Board report on Guatemala, along with thousands of pages of related State Department, CIA and Department of Defense documents.6 The report contained an unprecedented description of U.S. intelligence operations in a foreign country, as well as critical new information on human rights abuses in Guatemala. Its release -- as well as the declassification of the accompanying documents -- showed that the government could arrive at an appropriate balance between national security and the public's interest in a matter of profound sensitivity.
But despite good intentions, the government's record is not consistent. The National Security Archive is in a unique position to report on U.S. efforts to provide human rights information. Since 1992, the Archive has worked closely with three official human rights investigative bodies in Central America: the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, the Office of the National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras, and Guatemala's Historical Clarification Commission. The Archive's support has included research, access to declassified U.S. documents and technical advice.7 We have also helped explain and analyze U.S. records as they have been released.
All three entities formally requested human rights information from the United States. In each instance, the U.S. response has been vastly different. When the U.N. Truth Commission for El Salvador approached the Bush administration in 1992, for example, it was initially rebuffed. Strong congressional pressure convinced the White House to establish an interagency working group to assist the commission with access to documents. Yet by the time the commission issued its report in March of 1993, little information of value had been provided to its staff from U.S. agency files. Indeed, when President Clinton subsequently declassified some 12,000 documents on El Salvador in November 1993, members of the commission realized that significant material had been withheld from them during their investigations.8
The Historical Commission of Guatemala has also sought U.S. human rights information in support of its work. Inaugurated on July 31, 1997, the Guatemalan commission wrote to President Clinton last September requesting U.S. records on specific human rights cases and other issues relevant to its mandate. The response of the Clinton administration was timely and substantive. By mid-April, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City had turned over 12 packages of documents from the State Department, AID, CIA, Department of Defense and two presidential libraries Although there are significant gaps in the collection, and information critical to the commission's work continues to be withheld, the release clearly represents a serious effort on the government's part. The Clarification Commission has requested additional support from the United States. Its report is expected to be completed some time this summer.
The Human Rights Commissioner of Honduras, unfortunately, has had a very different experience. As Dr. Valladares wrote in a recent public report, the Clinton administration's response to the Honduran request has been profoundly disappointing.9 While the State Department has provided more than 2,500 pages of documents, the CIA and the Department of Defense have produced very few records, with little relevance to the commissioner's investigations. It is unclear whether the administration intends to provide additional support to the Human Rights Commissioner.
The National Security Archive believes that the Human Rights Information Act is the appropriate legislative remedy for what has, until now, been an ad hoc process entirely in the hands of the federal agencies. The bill brings the force of law to bear on the release of critical human rights information to the Latin American and Caribbean nations that so urgently need it, and it does so in a simple and uncomplicated manner: by assuring the timeliness of the release of records, defining declassification standards, and ensuring oversight through an interagency panel already established by executive order.
Mr. Chairman, many of the democratic nations of Latin America and the Caribbean are struggling right now to reject the region's legacy of violence and turn the terms of newly-signed peace accords into reality. But they face grave challenges. Throughout the region, terrible internal conflict led to gross abuses against hundreds of thousands of men, women and children during decades past. Today, these same countries face the awesome task of building peaceful and truly "civil" societies out of what was left to them when the killing stopped. We can assist them in their efforts. As the name of the South African "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" makes clear, truth does indeed come before reconciliation. The United States can give Latin America and Caribbean nations some of the basic truths they need -- bricks and mortar for the construction of their new societies.
I appreciate this opportunity to testify today and I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, and with your staff to move the Human Rights Information Act forward. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
1. An extensive account of the controversy over the FRUS series may be found in Page Putnam Miller's chapter, "Access to State Department Records," in A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People 's Right to Know. The volume is edited by Athan G. Theoharis and was published by the University Press of Kansas in 1998.
2. Public Law 102-526, 102nd Congress. See Anna Kasten Nelson, "The John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board," in ibid.
3. Information Security Oversight Office, 1996 Report to the President. Washington, D.C., 1997. Page 3. For the text of the executive orders, and for additional insight into recent executive decisions on secrecy policy, see also the Information Security Oversight Office reports for 1994 and 1995.
4. Secrecy, Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, S. Doc. 105-2. Washington, D.C., 1997.
5. For information on these initiatives and other issues concerning U.S. secrecy policy, see the monthly editions of the "Secrecy and Government Bulletin," written by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, at http://www.fas.org/sgp/.
6. Intelligence Oversight Board, "Report on the Guatemala Review." June 28, 1996. A copy of this report is among the holdings of the National Security Archive.
7. In the case of Honduras, the Archive also supports and houses a full-time research fellow, Susan Peacock, who serves as the U.S.-based liaison for the Human Rights Commissioner, Dr. Leo Valladares.
8. One of the three U.N.-appointed commissioners of the El Salvador Truth Commission, Professor Thomas Buergenthal of George Washington University, later wrote an article detailing the commission's work, including its relations with the U.S. government: "The United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador" in Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 27, No. 3, October 1994. See also Buergenthal's op-ed in The New York Times, April 8, 1998, "The U.S. Should Come Clean on 'Dirty Wars'."
9. In Search of Hidden Truths, Honduras, C.A., 1998. A copy of the report is posted at www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive/latin_america/honduras/hidden_truths/hidden.htm.