Declassifying The Classified.

January 25, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Posted in Historical | Leave a comment
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Theodor Horydczak)

Construction of National Archives, 1933/1934 (Photo: Theodor Horydczak)

Congress passed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act in 1998. Irwin Nack, Investigative Counsel for the New York State Banking Department’s investigation into the activities of Swiss banks in New York prior to and during the Second World War, addressed the Interagency Working Group (IAWG) on September 27, 1999:

The Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act seeks to declassify those remaining documents which still remain shielded from the public eye. What about those documents which have already been declassified, but only in redacted form?

Adolf Hitler saluting, with two SS generals in uniform behind him, at Nazi Party Day, Nuremberg, Germany (1937)

Adolf Hitler saluting, with two SS generals in uniform behind him, at Nazi Party Day, Nuremberg, Germany (1937)

Several weeks ago I visited the electronic library set up by the Department of Justice on their web site. Among the documents available are those relating to our government’s postwar relationship with the notorious SS officer, Klaus Barbie.

In viewing the documents, I was struck by the extent of information which was redacted and which still remains redacted. Some of those documents go back to the 1940s and yet despite their relevance, they still remain partially classified. Similar redacted documents bear notations that confidentiality is necessary for national security.

It is my sincere hope that among the recommendations made by the Interagency Working Group will be one which calls for a review of those earlier redactions so that a determination can be made whether such classified status is still warranted (or ever warranted in the first place).

This brings me to some final suggestions regarding the manner by which the remaining records are declassified. The review of the documents in question must be done by individuals who are knowledgeable of the underlying subject matter and are able to appreciate it’s importance in its historical context. In some cases, I have seen documents which have been extensively redacted and though other channels have obtained unredacted copies, only to be amazed at the extent of innocuous information which was still deemed classified.

US Secretary of State Stimson broadcasts greeting to Japan on the occasion of the birthday of the Emperor of Japan, April 29, 1931.

US Secretary of State Stimson broadcasts greeting to Japan on the occasion of the birthday of the Emperor of Japan, April 29, 1931.


In December 2000 the scope of work was expanded when Congress passed the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act of 2000.

As of October 2002, 19,890,396 documents had been “screened for relevancy,” with 12,289,500 still unexamined. The combined Acts were set to expire in December 2003 but an executive order by George W. Bush extended the deadline to March 2007.

The final report was presented to members of Congress in late September 2007 by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States. The report indicates that over 6,000,000 documents were declassified.

In February 2005 “the National Security Archive posted the CIA’s secret documentary history of the U.S government’s relationship with General Reinhard Gehlen, the German army’s intelligence chief for the Eastern Front during World War II.”

Reading about this makes me think it unlikely that any significant declassification of Bush administration documents will occur in my lifetime.

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