Guide To Using Declassified Documents


Page created by David N. Gibbs
University of Arizona

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The Most Valuable Sources

       When searching for primary documents pertaining to U.S. foreign policy, a good place to begin is with the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. This is a huge collection of declassified documents from multiple agencies, which is edited and published by the Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department. The series begins in 1861; the most recent volumes contain documents from the late 1970s. Generally, these volumes are published with a 40-year time lag (e.g., volumes containing documents from the 1970s are only being published now). The complete series comprises many hundreds of volumes. They are relatively easy to use: the volumes are well organized and clearly typeset, with detailed indexes. There are annotations to explain the significance of events and persons. The complete set of volumes (1861-1984) is available in hardcopy at most research libraries, with LC call number JX 233 A3.

     The FRUS series has now become available in digital format, free of charge. For digitized volumes from the period 1861-1945, click here; for the Truman presidency, click here; for the Eisenhower presidency, click here; for the Kennedy presidency, click here; for the Johnson presidency, click here; for the Nixon and Ford presidencies, click here; for the Carter presidency, click here; for the Reagan presidency, click here

    In theory, the FRUS volumes are supposed to be complete, accurate, and reliable. They are not supposed to omit any documents that might reflect badly on U.S. policy, or might embarrass policymakers. In practice, of course, FRUS engages in extensive censorship, and embarrassing materials are routinely excluded. Most importantly, materials pertaining to CIA covert operations tend to be omitted. I have written a strongly critical analysis of the FRUS volume on the Congo Crisis (see David N. Gibbs, "Misrepresenting the Congo Crisis," African Affairs 95, no. 380, 1996). My criticisms of the Congo volume can easily be generalized to the whole series. In short, the FRUS series must be regarded as seriously incomplete, though it remains a basic and easily accessible source for historians of U.S. foreign policy. Just make sure to use this source carefully. Note that in recent years, the State Department historians have responded to the criticisms of myself and others, and they have included some materials pertaining to covert operations in the FRUS series (for one example of this shift in policy, click here). 

    A second source of documentary information is the Declassified Documents Reference System, which provides assorted declassified materials for the period 1941 to the present. Note that this is a proprietary database, available through research libraries (including the University of Arizona's library). It it somewhat more difficult to use than FRUS, since there are no annotations to explain the context in which events took place. However, it provides a wide range of documents that are not generally available through FRUS, and it is fully on-line. Search tip: Always click on the "advanced search" menu, which is far easier to use.

    The fourteen presidential libraries (Hoover through Obama) have begun to digitize their records. Some of these digitized collections are quite valuable (note especially the National Security Council meetings of the Ford Library for example). Some presidential libraries also contain digitized versions of extended interviews with presidential aides, which are useful. The Miller Center at the University of Virgina has an extended series of online oral histories from former officials from the presidencies of Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, click here.  

    Another source is the National Security Archive, which is a privately funded research institute, affiliated with George Washington University. The National Security Archive works to secure declassification of documents through persistent use of the Freedom of Information Act (more on FOIA later). The Archive has amassed a vast document set, which is sold commercially to research libraries. Many universities subscribe to the Digital National Security Archive, the main repository for its documentation. In addition, the National Security Archive has placed a sizable portion of its best documents on a public domain website, available for free. Intelligence and covert operations seems to be a special strength of these collections. Check out the archive Briefing Books, which contain analytical essays on specified topics, with hyperlinks to the actual declassified documents. A particularly useful document set pertains to the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, one of the key documents that defined post-Cold War U.S. policy; the document organization and analysis are excellent. See also the recent document set on the 1990 US promise to the Soviets that NATO would not expand eastward, a key agreement at the end of the Cold War. For an extended analysis of the declassified documents pertaining to the 1990 US promise regarding NATO, see this excellent English-language article in Der Speigel. The NSA discussion on the Bosnian War seems surprisingly weak and tendentiously written. For a different perspective on the Bosnian War, dealing with many of the issues omitted by the NSA, click here

    The Federation of American Scientists has made available the full text of National Security Council memoranda for from 1947 to the present, click here. The extensive declassified documents pertaining to the 1963 Kennedy assassination have been made available by the National Archives, click here

     On foreign economic policy, the US Federal Reserve System has an excellent historical website with primary source documents beginning in 1936, click here. The complete set of documents from the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, which established the post-war system of international economic cooperation has been made available by the Center for Financial Stability, click here. A useful set of economic data and graphs has been made available by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the "FRED Economic Data." 


Leaked Documents

     By far the most important source of leaked documents is the vast archive made available by the WikiLeaks organization, under the direction of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. This document set is well organized and easy to use. An analysis of the most significant WikiLeaks releases has been published by Edward Hunt, in his excellent article "The WikiLeaks Cables: How the United States Exploits the World, in Detail, from an Internal Perspective, 2001–2010." The documents on domestic surveillance by US intelligence agencies leaked by Edward Snowden have been deposited in full, click here.

     I note that both Assange and Snowden have both made enormous personal sacrifices to make these document sets available to the public: Assange is languishing in a British prison after years of confinement, while Snowden has been forced to take refuge in Moscow. 

     There are several additional web sites that upload leaked document: Cryptome specializes in intelligence and covert operations material. The website of the Federation of American Scientists, also contains links to many leaked documents, especially with regard to military matters. 

    An archive of Hillary Clinton's emails while she was Secretary of State has been made available by the Republican congressional inquiry into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, and placed on the web by the Wall Street Journal. The premise of the investigation may be partisan and silly, but it has yielded considerable new information on the Obama foreign policy.

     The complete published version of the famous Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war has now been digitized (click here for full text). The vast collection of classified U.S. government documents on U.S. relations with Iran and Afghanistan during the 1970s - originally seized by Iranian militants at the U.S. in 1979 - have been digitized (click here).

     Captured Al Qaeda documents obtained during the assassination of Osama Bin Laden have now been released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, under the Title of "Bin Laden's Bookshelf." These were not leaked documents, but official releases -- from a US intelligence source that has not always been reliable. 


Cold War Era Documents from the ex-Soviet Archives

    New materials being released from the archives of the ex-Soviet Union and its former communist allies are being made available in English translation through the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP). Check out especially the CWIHP Digital Archive, which contains the translated documents. This database contains excellent materials pertaining to the Cold War, some of which are extremely interesting. Also useful is the CWIHP Bulletin, which contains analyses of these documents by professional historians. The National Security Archive, noted above, also contains significant ex-Soviet materials, in translation.

    These new materials have reopened a longstanding debate regarding the supposedly "aggressive" character of Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War and the "defensive" character of U.S. policy. Melvyn Leffler has written a reasonably balanced assessment of this debate (see Leffler, "Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened," Foreign Affairs 75, no. 4, 1996 (for full text, click here); and Leffler, "The Cold War: What Do 'We Now Know'?" American Historical Review 104, no. 2, 1999 (for full text, click here).

    There are also some collections of materials from Soviet defectors, which are more problematic, given the proclivities of defectors to tell their new "handlers" what they want to hear. George Orwell noted from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, that "deserters for obvious reasons, often try to curry favor" -- a point that can be generalized in reading memoirs from KGB defectors. 


Public US Government Documents

    One can also use public materials for each president, collected in the multi-volume Public Papers of the President series. These consist of public speeches, press conferences, official statements, and the like. Much of the material is trite; some of it is useful and even surprising (e.g. Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union or Eisenhower's 1961 Farewell Address). The American Presidency Project provides online access to all public presidential papers during the years 1929-2001 (i.e. for presidents Hoover through Clinton). This is a useful and very complete collection of materials, all at a single site. Additional public presidential materials are available for the period from 1991 to the present, through Public Papers of the Presidents.

    The most famous speeches for all forty-three presidents (from George Washington onward) can be obtained through Presidents of the United States. Also, there is a complete set of presidential State of the Union Addresses and Inaugural Addresses.

    The US Government website GovInfo contains full text for the Congressional Record (1994 to present); Federal Register (1936 to present), US government budget (1996 to present), and Congressional hearings (1957 to present). A complete set of reports by the Congressional Research Service is available online, click here

    The complete Congressional Record has been digitized by the Library of Congress (1873-present), click here

     British parliamentary debates are available through a public domain British government site (free of charge) for the period 1803-present. 


Intelligence and Covert Operations

    Intelligence documents have been a special "problem" for researchers, as noted above, since relatively little has emerged from the archives. However, there are a few important exceptions to this rule. The excellent historical documentation from the Senate investigations of the mid-1970s (the "Church Committee" reports) are now available online. These reports remain among the best sources of information regarding intelligence and covert operations during the Cold War. Also available is the Rockefeller Commission report on the CIA. There is an online transcript of a 1984 debate among CIA officers, regarding the desirability of covert war. The debate is quite interesting and reveals a number of historically significant facts, which are unavailable elsewhere. In 2007, the CIA did declassify several hundred pages of materials on domestic spying and covert operations, sometimes referred to as the Agency's "Family Jewels." In reality, these documents are not quite as sensational as the press is suggesting -- since much of the information contained in them was already known -- but they are useful all the same.

    The CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI) has published and placed on its web site a series of declassified intelligence documents from the Cold War era. Especially useful is a group of declassified intelligence documents on the the Soviet Union during the period 1946-50 (the 1946-47 documents are from the CIA's predecessor, the Central Intelligence Group; the 1948-50 documents are from the CIA). The full text of these documents are available through the CSI's on-line volume Assessing the Soviet Threat. The CIA has its own document search site, for previously released materials. A small number of declassified documents from the National Security Agency are available, through the National Security Archive.

    Another source on intelligence matters is a special volume of the FRUS series, Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment, 1945-1950, published in 1996. Note also the FRUS essay "U.S. Covert Action and Counter-Insurgency Programs", published in 1999 (as an attachment to a volume on Africa). The latter is one of the few explicit acknowledgements of covert operations to be found in the FRUS series. For a series of guides to the CIA's own official declassified archives, click here

    Also check out Namebase, which has detailed information on specific individuals, along with their business and intelligence connections. A good feature of this website is that it will produce a network map, showing how the person in question is connected to a web of other figures and institutional interests. However, you should make sure to check carefully the sources noted in Namebase; some of these are mainstream, reliable sources, while some are more dubious.

    One volume of the CIA's in-house history of the Bay of Pigs invasion has been declassified. The report is very interesting and it contains details about the role of U.S. corporations in the invasion. Historian David M. Barrett paraphrases the report as follows:

Days before Christmas 1960, DCI Allen Dulles held an important, and I would say scandalous, meeting in New York. In attendance [the report notes] “were the Vice President for Latin America of Standard Oil of New Jersey, the Chairman of the Cuban-American Sugar Company, the President of the American Sugar Domino Refining Company, the President of the American & Foreign Power Company, the Chairman of the Freeport Sulphur Company, and representatives from Texaco, International TelephDone and Telegraph, and other American companies with business interests in Cuba. The tenor of the conversation was that it was time for the U.S. to get off dead center and take some direct action against Castro.” The corporate leaders had many ideas along these lines for Dulles. They included burning sugar cane fields, ruining refineries, interrupting electric power supplies, and putting an embargo on food and medicines going into Cuba... At a minimum...corporate interests played a “sometimes overactive” role in support of the anti-Castro efforts.

    Barrett presents a useful synopsis of the CIA document, for those who do not wish to read the whole report.

    Regarding CIA influence at universities, I have created my own website, with full text links to recent materials pertaining to this issue. See also the useful site CIA-on-Campus. Regarding influence with the mass media, journalist Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) wrote a classic article "The CIA and the Media: How America's Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered it Up," Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977. See also the US Senate investigation of this phenomenon, click here


Business Influence on Politics and Foreign Policy

    The important topic of corporate and business influence on foreign policy is inherently difficult to research, as there is no mandatory document declassification for the private sector. However, there are a few good sources. There are some archival collections (of varied qualify) pertaining to prominent business figures with political ties. One source is the collection of papers from Thomas Lamont, a key figure from the Robber Baron era and a banking partner of J. P. Morgan. The Lamont Papers, located at Baker Library, Harvard Business School, contain extensive documentation on business influence in a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues, during the first half of the twentieth century. 

    Another vital archival collection is the Rockefeller Archives, which are located in Westchester County, New York.

    For recent information regarding business influence on government (with especially good coverage of issues relating to the military-industrial complex), check out the Center for Public Integrity site. Additional information can be obtained through CorpWatchCenter for Corporate Policy, and the Project on Government Oversight. Data on the role of money in recent U.S. elections can be obtained through the excellent web sites from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Institute on Money in State Politics. Public Citizen provides useful information on corporate lobbying, including an excellent recent report Revolving Doors: The Journey from Congress to K Street. It also has a search engine called Find a Lobbyist. Additional information on recent lobbying activities is available from Stealth Pacs and White House for Sale

   The leaked Panama Papers, concering off-shore financial activity are now availabe in a searchable database. 

    Sourcewatch provides detailed information on corporate lobbying and propaganda, including the categories of public relations firmsthink tanksindustry-funded organizations, and industry friendly "experts". Also useful from Sourcewatch is there posting, "How to Research Front Groups."

    Publicly traded companies must file detailed reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Recent filings are available online from the SEC's website, Edgar. Most of these latter databases are proprietary; however similar resources should be available at most research libraries.

    The various biographical directories and "Who's Who" volumes often contain business affiliations. The best single source for biographical details is the proprietary site Biography Resource Center. If you want to investigate a particular person -- to find out, let us say, their business or political ties -- this is the place to start. Bear in mind that people are only included in the Who's Who volumes if they want to be included, and these biographies are usually (not always) written by the individuals themselves. Accordingly, the most embarrassing details of people's lives are usually omitted. So, you should read these biographies carefully. And if you want additional information on the person in question, you can then run the name through Lexis-Nexis to see if he/she has appeared in the newspapers. For "historical" biographies of deceased individuals, use the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is also proprietary.

    Another source of information on prominent individuals and their corporate links is Right Watch, which focuses, as its name implies, on right-leaning personalities. Run by the liberal Inter-Hemispheric Resource Center, this is a well organized and factually accurate site. It presents "Individual Profiles" of such figures as Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice, and many other conservatives (both inside and outside the Bush Administration). It contains data pertaining to their personal biographies, political backgrounds, and corporate links; it has footnotes to sources. Unlike the Biography Resource Center (above), Right Watch is a public domain web site. Namebase, discussed above, in another good source to explore specific individuals and their business connections.

    For additional information on the role of the private sector in politics and policy processes, see Who Rules? An Internet Guide to Power Structure Research, and G. William Domhoff's web site, both of which provides links to numerous sites. See also the Print Sources for Corporate Research, which references published materials that are available in research libraries.

    The Council on Foreign Relations conducted a highly influential study during World War II, which laid the groundwork for the Bretton Woods economic system and for much of postwar U.S. policy more generally, entltled Studies of Ameirica's Interests in War and Peace (SAIWP). The whole multi-volume series of documents has been scanned. For the SAIWP armaments series, click here; for the security and armaments series, click  here; for the economic and financial series, click here; for the territorial series, click here; for the political series, click here; for the topical index, click here



    The best way to obtain declassified materials is of course to go to the archives themselves. Regarding the major collections: There are detailed sites for Presidential Libraries and the U.S. National Archives; these contain a significant number of digitized documents, readily available without charge. There are also the United Nations Archive in New York and the U.K. National Archives in London, both of which contain substantial materials that are useful for students of U.S. foreign policy. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has an online document set for Canadian foreign relations during the period 1946-1963, similar to the FRUS series for the United States. Also, this Department has published an on-line volume of interpretative essays regarding the early Cold War, Canada and the Early Cold War, 1943-1957. The volume is in effect an official history, and it should be viewed with the same skepticism accorded to the FRUS volumes, discussed above. The University of Arizona has a two proprietary databases, ArchivesFinder and ArchiveGrid, which are useful for locating obscure collections. This should also be available at most research libraries.  Archives Unbound provides significant access to U.S. foreign relations documents, especially pertaining to relations with Latin America and the Middle East.

    Note that these official archival collections tend to overstate the salience of official government activity in international relations, and to understate the influence business organizations and private sector groups. The latter are not required to release of documents to the public and they are, accordingly, far harder to study.

    The State Department's Electronic Reading Room and the CIA's Electronic Reading Room both have full text links to declassified documents on a number of subjects. The FBI's Electronic Reading Room is also quite useful, and it contains substantial materials pertaining to U.S. foreign policy. There is also a large number of reports from the Congressional Research Service, covering a wide range of foreign policy topics (this collection is made available by the Federation of American Scientists).

    For researchers on the Kennedy assassination, the U.S. National Archives' Assassination Records Collection has made available a vast quantity of declassified documents. The above site includes the full text of the controversial Warren Commission report. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has made available recordings of presidential conversations, during the period 1940-73. The recordings are difficult to decipher; however, the site also contains transcripts of presidential conversations for the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies. Click here for access. A collection of declassified documents documents pertaining to U.S. relations with Somalia (just before the 1992 intervention) has been compiled by Keith Yearman of the College of DuPage. For basic primary materials on World War I, check out the World War I Document Archive

   Eurodocs provides documentary information for several European countries, including some pertaining to foreign policy issues. Public papers from the United Nations are available through Official Document System of the United Nations.


The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

    The National Security Archive has an excellent page, How to Make a FOIA Request. There is also the Citizen's Guide to Using the Freedom of Information Act, published by the U.S. Congress. The National Security Archive is undertaking a major audit of how well (or rather how badly) FOIA has been functioning. Available online, the report is entitled, Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

    FOIA was originally created in 1966, but only became effective in 1974, with a series of legislative amendments. Officially, the Freedom of Information Act is designed so that any citizen can write an agency requesting information, and can get it; the agencies are required to waive search fees if the FOIA request is primarily in the public interest, i.e. it is not being made by a corporation or other commercially-oriented organization. Agencies must disclose the requested materials -- to affirm the people's "right to know" -- unless there is a compelling reason to keep the material secret.

    In practice, however, FOIA is extremely difficult to use. There is a basic conflict of interest in its operation: It is up to each specific agency to determine whether the law is being obeyed. One can appeal a negative decision, but the review takes place within the specific agency from which you are seeking documents, and there is a built-in bias against granting access. The only way to get an "impartial" hearing is to go to court, which is quite expensive. And the courts have not been particularly sympathetic to researchers in recent years.

    My own experience: As a graduate student working during the mid-1980s, I made FOIA requests pertaining to the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. The entire process, including appeals, required some three years. At one point, I had to use the services of an attorney (he helped me pro bono), though I did not actually go to court. The intelligence agencies, including CIA, NSA, and FBI released nothing of substance and acted outrageously. I did obtain about two thousand pages of declassified documents from the State Department (heavily censored prior to release). But the process was time consuming, to say the least. From conversations with colleagues, I believe that my experience is fairly typical. The situation has not changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War.

    The Federation of American Scientists has an excellent Project on Government Secrecy, run by Steven Aftergood, which tracks developments in this area. Since 2000, the United Kingdom has also established a Freedom of Information Act. To obtain documents under the UK act, see A Short Guide the the Freedom of Information Act and Other New Access Rights. For information on FOIA laws in other countries, see Freedom of Information Around the World, 2006.  

     Regarding the theoretical implications of secrecy, see David N. Gibbs, "Secrecy and International Relations," Journal of Peace Research 32, no. 2, 1995 (for full text, click here). For methodologies of analyzing previously secret documents see Gibbs, "Sigmund Freud as a Theorist of Government Secrecy," Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 19, 2011 (for full text, click here).  


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