Earlier this summer, the Intelligence Community (IC) published newly declassified records about the 1968 Tet offensive on www.intelligence.gov. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Communist-backed military attacks against American forces and American allies in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the declassified records posted are the first in three planned public releases scheduled for this year and 2019. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Daniel R. Coats asked IC agencies to conduct this project, based on the recommendation of the IC Senior Historians Panel. Director Coats asked this Panel to identify topics of historical interest as part of an IC-wide effort to enhance public understanding of IC activities. This project supports the IC’s Principles of Intelligence Transparency Implementation Plan (February 2015) and Principles of Intelligence Transparency (October 27, 2015) initiatives.
The declassification of these historical records align closely with the long-standing PIDB recommendations to conduct topic-based declassification review and to prioritize historically important records for declassification. The PIDB also recommended that the IC should clearly define “sources and methods” to facilitate declassification and public release of no-longer sensitive information.
Specifically, this declassification action supports recommendations in PIDB’s 2012 Report to the President, Transforming Classification, and the 2014 PIDB Supplemental Report to the President, Setting Priorities. Declassification projects like these aid public and historical knowledge, but they also benefit policymakers and practitioners seeking to learn lessons from the past.
While the 2014 PIDB supplemental report specifically recommended “topic-based declassification,” the 2012 PIDB report had already recommended that: “Each agency should have an in-house history staff to assist agency records officers and declassifiers in the prioritization of records,” so that “access to these historical records will aid policymakers in retrieving the documentary records of past policy decisions, lending context to contemporary decision-making while cataloging valuable information for future analysis and public release.”
The 2012 PIDB report recommended that: “The specific protections afforded intelligence sources and methods need to be precisely defined and distinguished,” for federal agencies to appropriately share and ultimately declassify intelligence information, just as the IC’s ambitious Tet Declassified website now so effectively does.
Named after the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or “Tet” celebrations, which in 1968 fell on January 30 and coincided with the first surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese Army and local militants in the south, the Tet Offensive initially beleaguered such high-profile targets as the Presidential Palace and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Although thwarted at the end of 1968 by American and South Vietnamese forces, the surprise and early success of the Tet Offensive began to undermine public support in the United States for the war in Vietnam.
The IC’s Tet Offensive Declassification Project represents an important step toward normalizing topic-based and prioritized declassification of historical records. It is valuable to citizens seeking a better understanding of this event and will aid public discussion. And it will aid agency policymaking on the lessons learned from historical experience. The PIDB looks forward to the public release of the next installment, and to promoting similar initiatives by all executive-branch agencies.