NSA Declassifies and Releases the Friedman Collection

We welcome guest blogger, Dr. Dave Sherman, Associate Director for Policy and Records at the National Security Agency, who describes below details about NSA’s recent accomplishment: the declassification review and release of records in the Friedman Collection.

During the past two weeks I’ve had the privilege of participating in a series of events marking the National Security Agency’s declassification and public release of the official papers of an individual who, were I asked to name a single person as the founder of that agency, deserves the title more than anyone else:  William Friedman.

On Monday, April 20, 2015, NSA released over 50,000 pages (or 7,000 records) of Friedman’s official papers to the public.  These newly declassified records are now available at the National Archives and Records Administration.   NSA also posted digital copies of the entire collection to its website and provided electronic copies to NARA and to the Marshall Foundation, which holds Friedman’s personal papers.  On Thursday, April 23, 2015, the Foundation hosted a symposium marking the public release and featuring speakers from both government and academia.   It also opened an excellent exhibit on the life and work of William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth – a renowned codebreaker in her own right – with numerous photographs, papers, and artifacts from its collections.   Five days later, the National Cryptologic Museum, located on NSA’s Fort Meade campus, cut the ribbon on its own exhibit honoring the Friedmans.

Friedman served in almost every one of the signals intelligence agencies which preceded NSA and at NSA itself.  He is remembered to have brought the discipline of a scientist to the making and breaking of codes and ciphers, or cryptology, a field previously left mostly to inspired amateurs and some less than noble dilettantes.   After the first U.S. codebreaking organization, the American Black Chamber, was shut down in the 1920s, Friedman carried on as the Army’s lone cryptologist.  Then, in the early 1930s, he founded the Signals Intelligence Service…with an initial staff, including Friedman himself, of six!  The SIS grew slowly throughout the 1930s, but its small size did not keep it from achieving one of the most significant feats in the history of cryptanalysis:  the breaking of Japan’s “Purple” cipher, which that nation used to protect its most sensitive diplomatic communications.  But Friedman and his team were not just codebreakers.  They also were code makers,  devising an encryption machine – SIGABA – which, unlike the German Enigma or the Japanese Purple systems, protected Allied communications through World War II and beyond without ever having been cracked…at least not that we know of.

It took NSA almost two years of work to get to the point where we were ready to publicly release the Friedman papers.  Here’s what I’ve learned in the process.

First, the declassification and public release process looks easier than it is.  What could be simpler than getting out a few thousand pages of records from (mainly) the 1950s and 1960s, right?  I would be the first to agree that the government, and especially NSA, needs to get more historically significant information into the public domain more quickly, and in a more complete and comprehensive form.  On the other hand – and I can understand why the historical community would have difficulty believing this – there remains some information that must remain secret to protect certain intelligence sources and methods still active and relevant today, even for example from the early Cold War period.  Just enough, in fact, that for a collection covering the wide range of topics which the Friedman collection encompasses we had to review much of it page-by-page to ensure we inadvertently did not endanger such activities.   But – and this is my first lesson – what we must not do is allow the complexity of the task to deter us from undertaking it.  As Public Interest Declassification Board member Bill Leary observed at the National Declassification Center’s recent public forum, declassification projects which are the most challenging to undertake are also likely to be the most historically relevant.  They should be at the top of our to-do list, and we also need to find new ways to do them quickly and comprehensively.

The second thing I’ve learned is that there is no single approach that will succeed for every declassification effort.   For the Friedman project, for example, we made a decision early that in addition to making the paper originals available at NARA we also would release the entire collection in digital form.  We did this to ensure the broadest public access to the records.  Other efforts have taken this route as well, including a smaller NSA release on Vietnam POWs and MIAs last year.  However, it remains to be seen whether our process would prove feasible for projects with millions of pages.  We also decided to conduct a line-by-line declassification review of the records, redacting still secret information when required.  More time-consuming than a simple “pass-fail” declassification review, our objective was to tell as complete a story as possible without compromising national security or fostering historical misinterpretation.  As a result, roughly 85% of the Friedman collection was released in full.  Understandably – and reasonably, in my view – we’ve been criticized a bit for our redactions, on the grounds that any excisions from a record increase the likelihood of its significance being misinterpreted.  That criticism is not unfair.  It also, at a minimum, reminds us in government to wield the redaction knife – or, as it was more colorfully described to me recently, meat cleaver – with care.  We strove to minimize the redactions on this project.  However, this approach may not be suitable for other projects.  And those of us who resort to it would be well advised to institute checks against the risk of our enabling historical misinterpretation, inadvertently or otherwise.

Finally, I’ve come to an even greater appreciation than before that declassification is a team sport and partnerships – both within the government and between the government and the public – are critical to success.   The more obvious reason for this is that, with the increasing integration of the Intelligence Community over time, many of our records contain classified information which falls under the jurisdiction of multiple agencies.  That is absolutely necessary as a matter of analytic tradecraft in order to provide the policymaker or military commander with the most comprehensive and authoritative intelligence possible.   To be effective, then, declassification will require increasing use of cross-agency teams, both at the National Declassification Center and elsewhere.  But partnerships with public institutions and individual researchers are equally important.  This is not just because, in the final analysis, the government’s records are the public’s records.   Public institutions and individuals also provide essential steerage in helping those of us in government identify records of highest interest.  They also hold their own records collections, ones which – as we have seen in the case of the Friedman release – when augmented by government materials create a full and complete documentary record ripe for historical interpretation and public understanding.  And, finally, the public, academia, and the advocacy community can and must hold us in government accountable to ensure the soundness of our declassification processes and their outcomes.

Those of us at NSA who have been involved in the public release of the Friedman collection are proud of the results.  But we are even more gratified to have learned what we have along the way.  We realize that there is much more left to do.  We also know that there is always more we can and will learn about how to make our records available to the public in ways that do not harm our nation’s security but do increase public understanding and accountability, something which is now more than ever critical to sustaining an intelligence service in a democratic society.


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