Washington Post journalist: US government continues to restrict access to secrets of the Cuban missile crisis

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U.S. government secrecy will not be an issue, I told myself optimistically, as I began to research a history of the Cuban missile crisis. After all, the classic showdown of the Cold War occurred more than four decades ago, well outside the 25-year period established by the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for the automatic release of everything but the most sensitive government documents. The Soviet Union has been consigned to the ash heap of history, and ‘60s-era defense technologies, such as the U-2 spy plane, are no longer considered secret. How wrong I was.

It turns out that most government documents on the missile crisis — including the principal Pentagon and State Department records collections — are still classified. Hundreds of documents released to researchers a decade ago have since been withdrawn as part of a controversial — itself secret — reclassification program. And the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests to the National Archives has grown to two, three or even five years.

Six months traveling across the United States in pursuit of missile crisis records — from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, to the Air Force Historical Research Agency in Montgomery, Alabama — spawns conflicting impres-sions.

On the one hand, these institutions are part of a national treasure trove of archival riches. On the other, the system of declassifying government information has become so chaotic in recent years that it is difficult for outsiders, and even many insiders, to understand the logic behind it.

Thanks to the White House tapes declassified in 1996, I have eavesdropped on intimate conversations between President Kennedy and his aides as they struggled to respond to the deployment of Soviet rockets less than 150 kilometers from Key West. I have perused top-secret signals intelligence released by the National Security Agency, and page after page of U.S. invasion plans for Cuba, down to the gradient of the landing beaches and the Cuban “most wanted” list.

On the other hand, Air Force records describing the inadvertent penetration of Soviet air space by a U-2 at the very peak of the crisis are still secret.

The files of former Kennedy military adviser Maxwell Taylor are full of withdrawal slips marked “Access restricted.” An archival turf war between competing agencies has blocked access to the records of the State Department intelligence office.

The extent of the reclassification program (www.gwu.edu/(tilde)/nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEB B179/) only became clear late last month after a historian noticed that dozens of documents that he had previously copied from the National Archives had mysteriously disappeared from State Department boxes. The withdrawn records included several documents that had already been published in official government histories, such as a 1948 CIA memo on using balloons to drop propaganda leaflets over communist countries.

While the reclassification drive is intensely irritating to historians, an even bigger problem is the ripple effect such efforts have had on declassification.

The routine declassification of government records has ground to a virtual standstill over the past few years because of the diversion of resources to reexamining previously released records. Documents that would have been released routinely a decade ago are trapped in a bureaucratic twilight zone.

On March 2, the National Archives announced yet another initiative to respond to the flurry of bad publicity about reclassification — this time to check whether documents have been improperly withdrawn from circulation. While the initiative has been welcomed by historians, it also carries dangers. A vast amount of energy, time and tax-payer money is being wasted reviewing and re-reviewing the same documents.

If the missile crisis is any guide, the whole laborious process could be greatly speeded up by better coordination between agencies, improved data management, and what one frustrated National Archives records officer terms the application of “a little common sense.”

Some agencies — the Air Force is a prime example — lack an effective system for tracking documents previously declassified under the Freedom of Information Act.

By contrast, the CIA, which is often accused of dragging its feet, has found a way to make declassified documents instantly available to all researchers.

The agency has a public database that includes day-by-day intelligence analyses on the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba, based on reconnaissance flights by U-2s and low-level planes.

Archival work is a little like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. If you are patient enough, you can eventually make out the picture, even if many of the pieces are missing. In the case of the missile crisis, I have assembled enough of the puzzle to be confident that few, if any, of the missing pieces contain national security information that could be useful to an enemy — the criterion established by both Bush and Clinton for continuing to classify more than 25-year-old secrets.

So why, if the puzzle is largely resolved, am I and other researchers making such a fuss? Because history is not just about the big picture. It is also about the small stuff, thousands upon thousands of individual acts of bravery and skill and, yes, foolishness.

To make sense of the anguished White House debates between Kennedy and his advisers in October 1962, you need to understand how the Cold War was actually fought, by the generals, the spies, the reconnaissance pilots. It is the details that make history come alive — and in far too many cases those details are still being hidden from us.

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