Stewardship of Our Classified History

The Problem

The current records management system does not ensure those records of historical significance are identified in such a way as to promote their timely review for declassification and public release.  With greater reliance on digital records to decide policies and conduct missions, there is a great danger that, unless changes are made, our nation will be unable to document these historical decisions for future generations.


Stewardship of our national security history requires a two-tiered approach: capturing historically significant records at their creation and prioritizing their review for declassification.  Each agency leader should establish an agency-wide history program.  These programs should instill a greater sense of history in records management by fully integrating agency historians with records managers.

Mission-essential employees should collaborate with agency historians to further define the events and activities of historical significance. Using a continuum approach to information management, records managers and archivists should partner with mission-essential employees and historians to identify file series that detail historically significant events and activities.  This process should maintain the provenance and original order of the records to guarantee users and future researchers contextual accuracy.  When the records in question are electronic, information technology staff should ensure that the records’ metadata reflect their significance so as to ease future retrieval efforts.  The stewardship of national security history demands a strong focus on electronic records management, as future historians will rely increasingly on information to be managed appropriately in the digital environment.

Historians should use these records to compose both classified and unclassified histories.  The Center for the Study of Intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency could serve as a model for this approach and act as a facilitator for the history programs of the Intelligence Community.  Although individual military units have historians and conduct “lessons learned” exercises and draft after action reports, the Board believes it essential for the Department of Defense to also adopt this integral approach to agency history programs.  The historically significant records used to compose these histories should be prioritized for declassification review as these records would be of greatest interest to the public and are most likely to be subject to Freedom of Information Act or Mandatory Declassification Review requests.  These early releases will increase public access while reducing the volume of potential requests.  Communication between agency historians, records managers, archivists, and declassification reviewers is essential to fostering this holistic approach to records management, which the electronic environment and the information age necessitate.


Improved stewardship of the national security history of our Government would significantly enhance both Government operations and public access and knowledge.  Timely access to the documentary record benefits policymakers who can reflect on past agency decisions when developing new policies.  Effective records management practices will strengthen their ability to readily retrieve agency history and prevent the loss of historically significant records.  Changes to contemporary information management practices would ensure that records of greatest historical significance are automatically identified at their creation, made accessible to users through metadata and enhanced records management, and prioritized for timely declassification review and public release.

Effective records management programs are essential, both to the information retrieval capability of policymakers and to the stewardship of agency history.  The resources agency leaders invest in joint history and records management programs can earn real-time payoffs.  Just as after-action reports improve future military operations, authored histories can provide immediate assistance by lending historical context to contemporary policymaking. Policymakers should use these histories of prior decisions and lessons learned to inform contemporary policy initiatives and train new staff.  The impact of these studies depends largely on the timeliness and comprehensiveness of the historical record available.  Agencies should recognize that history and records management are vital to their missions.  Agency histories will remind agency personnel of the historical significance of their work, and unclassified versions will increase transparency by providing the public a view into agencies’ contemporary actions

By adopting a comprehensive records management program, agencies will be better positioned to address the challenges of the e-records environment and provide the public with the most sought-after materials. With the massive growth in electronic records, future historians are likely to be buried in data as they attempt to find important records.  Employing a continuum model with accompanying metadata tagging will preposition records for easier retrieval by agencies and the public.  Moreover, prioritizing historically significant records at the onset will reduce the eventual request burden on researchers, the NDC, and agency declassification offices.  Most importantly, improved records management will enable agencies to automatically declassify records without review, as was the original intent of the automatic declassification program.

7 thoughts on “Stewardship of Our Classified History

  1. Unfortunately the “great danger” that this proposal seeks to avert — namely, a failure to document and learn from crucial historical episodes — is already upon us in full force. Overcoming the current crisis in historical document declassification will require something more radical than the records management steps that this proposal recommends.

    To illustrate the problem I would point to the following three cases:

    * Because of failures to declassify half-century old records, the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series has still not produced its documentary history of U.S. foreign policy concerning the 1953 covert action in Iran, despite a statutory requirement that it do so.

    * Another FRUS volume on covert action in Chile in 1973 is likewise stalled.

    * This week the National Security Archive found it necessary to file a lawsuit against the CIA in an effort to gain access to a classified CIA history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion which the Agency has refused to release, a half-century after the fact.

    The PIDB proposal would not ameliorate these and numerous similar failures. In each of these cases, the subject matter has already been “prioritized” — its historical importance is not in question. Furthermore, the records requiring declassification have already been identified. So improved records management and prioritization of historical issues would be of no help. There is a deeper dysfunction that needs to be fixed.

    I would suggest an amended proposal along the following lines.

    When an agency fails to declassify records on a topic of significant historical importance in a timely manner, the subject records shall be removed from the custody and control of the agency and transferred to a (new) Historical Records Declassification Board, composed of individuals with relevant subject matter expertise. The Board should have authorities comparable to those of the Assassination Records Review Board, and should operate with a similar presumption of disclosure.

    Of course, this thumbnail suggestion leaves many questions open, such as: What qualifies as significant historical importance? What is a timely manner? Who should be on the Board? etc.

    But the important point, which also underlies the PIDB proposal, is that there is a profound national interest in maintaining an accurate and reliable historical record. This national interest must take precedence over any agency’s interests or preferences. And when an agency fails to fulfill its declassification responsibilities for whatever reason — incompetence, bad faith, or something else — then those responsibilities must be taken over by another entity that will fulfill them.

  2. Records management is perhaps part of a good historical release program, but it may not be a solution. Federal law requires keeping records that document the way the government does the business of the people. Unfortunately the work most of us do every day may create records, but those records don’t rise to the level of historical significance that historians need. Suggesting that records management should somehow be able to determine what records will be historically significant many years from now and then treat those records differently may be short sited.

    A second issue with this piece is a running difference of opinion between government and historians about who should determine what is historically significant. Even if agencies have historians on staff who continually monitor records to identify significant collections, we will face criticism from academic historians who want to decide for themselves what records are significant. The bonanza (and failure) of the 25 year declassification program was the notion of declassifying everything regardless of topic and the failure was that hundreds of millions of pages of junk was declassified and hundreds of millions of pages of potentially significant historic records remain in the “backlog.” For the money that was spent on the junk historians could have had a gold mine. But even then they would have argued that the junk we left behind was concealing a treasure.

    Maybe the solid ground between the positions of Messrs Studeman and Aftergood is in developing robust metadata that will help us identify both the historically significant records and the most sensitive documents that actually do need to be reviewed. If we could focus our limited effort on only the documents that need to be reviewed, the process could be efficient and reasonable. With a metadata approach we would release the wheat with the chaff and let the historians decide which is which.

  3. This is an significant proposal, coming as it does from a former Deputy Director of the CIA, and reflects a welcome appreciation of the need to take steps to ensure the preservation of historically important documents in an increasingly digital environment. As Admiral Studeman stresses, there are fundamental policy decisions that must be made at each federal agency to address the challenges of preserving this digital historical legacy of national security policy-making, decisions that involve both the rigorous identification of historically-significant records as early as possible, and the maintenance of the technologies required to be able to use these documents, as government information technologies evolve and change over time. Admiral Studeman’s discussion of the crucial benefits that will flow from this stewardship of our digital historical record is also much to the point, noting that both current officials and historians will secure a much better grounded appreciation of the policy-making process in these critical matters, an appreciation that can only advance understanding of the historical framework within which current policy issues are grounded.
    As Steven Aftergood has noted in his comments, however, preservation, while critical, is but half of the battle. The benefits that Admiral Studeman discusses will only accrue if the current declassification process is fundamentally, even radically, reformed to facilitate the more expeditious review of records and to raise the bar to continued classification so that only the most truly sensitive records remain closed. Admiral Studeman’s proposal that the release of official agency histories should be accompanied by declassification of the documents cited in these studies raises, by implication, a further proposal: that historians, both inside and outside the agency, should be more closely associated with the declassification review process, down to and including the review of declassification guidelines. Such procedures will better reflect the information and knowledge that is already in the public domain, as well as the diminished risks associated with the release of records that are decades old.
    Admiral Studeman sees the records of the Defense Department as an especially important starting point for an “integral approach” to preserving and facilitating timely declassification of historical decision-making electronic records. This is an astute suggestion because anything that promotes the timely declassification of Secretary of Defense records is important for historians trying to understand the U.S. role in world affairs. It’s worth noting, however, that historical Secretary of Defense (secret and top-secret level) paper records are very well identified on standard U.S. government 135 forms, but this has done little good in securing their timely release. Indeed, Secretary of Defense records from the late 1940s and early 1950s remain classified at the National Archives along with the critically important files of Robert McNamara. This is a huge gap in the historical record of the Cold War. While the National Declassification Center has made reassuring statements about the importance of declassifying historical SecDef records, time will tell whether the declassification process will liberate them so researchers can take them into account. Fortunately, however, the new OSD Historian, Dr. Erin Mahan, brings to her post a strong background in both academic and government history and an appreciation for the need for greater public access to historically important Pentagon records. Her leadership could be an important part of the solution to the problem of historical OSD records.

    If implemented in the coming years, Admiral Studeman’s proposal for an integral approach would be a stunning contrast to some agency policies and practices of the recent past and the present. As the late Air Force historian Ed Mark would tell anyone who would listen, his agency has had a disastrous track record when it came to preserve historical decision-making records. For example, he would say that the only record he could find of some Air Force decisions during the 1991 Gulf War was a set of Power Point slides. Even if Air Force historical records preservation practices have improved, Admiral Studeman’s proposals are plainly in order to ensure that progress continues.

    Bill Burr and Bob Wampler, The National Security Archive, George Washington University

  4. It is understood that the government will produce information having historical significance. However, the most important information our government produces is evidence of what they do (FOIA exceptions noted) fulfilling our basic our right to know should we chose to ask. 44 U.S.C. 3301 defines records “as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of the data in them”. While the government owes reasonable care, custody and control of the evidence, and yes there are laws, policies and regulations to ensure such, there has not been and nor is there now sufficient funding and sponsorship to take advantage of existing technologies, to fulfill the responsibilities and duties required by law. Industry does not fund R&D, invest in new ventures, or seek solutions unless there is a solid commitment by the government for funding true information requirements; and yes everyone, today’s information requirements are truly scary because of past neglect.

  5. This proposal is not only an excellent idea; its key components are already theoretically in place across the Intelligence Community and the Defense Department. This role for government history programs was discussed at the American Historical Association’s 2008 annual meeting, in a session entitled “Secret Historians, Secret Histories: A roundtable Discussion of the Issues Surrounding and Contributions of Classified History Programs.”
    Command history programs within the uniformed services and many DoD agencies currently execute duties that are at the very least in agreement with this proposal, where they do not actively struggle to meet its intent. Professionally staffed history programs are wide spread in DoD, and the profession’s standards require that historians “strive constantly to improve our collective understanding of the past” in their various duties. Intelligence Community Directive 108,, calls upon all organizations in that community to maintain “a professional historical capability” that should support this proposal’s aims, and even charges the resulting history programs “to document, analyze, and advance an understanding” of their parent agencies’ activities.
    Unfortunately ICD 108’s language falls short on several points. It does not define “professional historical capability,” leaving considerable room for interpretation despite OPM’s Standards for the 0170 Historian Series and various statements from the congressionally chartered American Historical Association- that profession’s equivalent of the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association. While ICD 108 identifies advancing public knowledge of the intelligence community as a goal of IC history programs, it makes clear that this duty is strictly subject to available resources and therefore a typically low priority. And ICD 108 lacks any measures for performance or standards of accountability. These flaws- lack of required adherence to professional standards, low priority for public disclosure, lack of performance measures and accountability- mean that the IC’s components are free to interpret, or disregard, ICD 108 as they will.
    CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI) is to be commended for its efforts to prepare for and support declassification efforts. But its visibility, productivity, and professional reputation is an anomaly among federal history programs with significant classified aspects. Active and professionally managed history programs like CSI can significantly improve the identification, preservation, and public release of historically significant classified information. When adequately staffed, organized, resourced, and tasked they are able to make these contributions with phenomenal efficiency, ensuring that the public reaps great returns for the resources invested.
    Full integration of historians and records managers is not necessary, and indeed it violates key tenants of the most successful command history programs if that phrase is interpreted to suggest that government history and records management offices should be combined in a single organization. Public history programs are best managed by professional historians. Within DoD, placing command historians directly in the commander’s staff has proven the most successful way of assuring historians the access and scholarly freedom that their efforts require, while at the same time insuring that DoD leaders have immediate access to the institutional memory that their historians represent. The Air Force’s Instruction 84-101 is one reflection of this.
    In some laudable instances, such as CSI, alternative structures have proven successful. They are also all too prone to becoming dysfunctional as increasing layers of bureaucracy levy various agendas, requirements, and editorial constraints on history programs in addition to their nominal goals- objectively documenting, analyzing, and promoting an understanding of an agency’s history to benefit its leaders, workers, and the public.
    This proposal can be realized by a number of vehicles- defining and enforcing ICD 108, defining and enforcing historical requirements across DoD, Executive Order, or even by following the Homeland Security model and legislating the existence of specific history programs. Foreign Relations of the United States sets the benchmark for a highly successful legislated history requirement. This proposal deserves careful consideration, but its implementation should address professional standards, accountability, and adequate resourcing for the history programs that it addresses.

  6. I am certainly in agreement with the need for robust agency histories. But their use as a vehicle to identify materials for declassification is limited. As Mr. Cooper notes, there will always be those who wonder what else they are not seeing. Also, the ODNI directive cited elsewhere is no peon to public information, rather it is an appeal for basic attention to history–as Studeman himself makes–but with the public interest put behind internal, operational use.

Comments are closed.