U.S. Government Secrecy Making Historical Research Difficult

tags: research, archives, government secrecy



James McGrath Morris writes frequently on journalism and civil rights. He is author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power and of the forthcoming Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne's Journey Through the Civil Rights Revolution.

While much has been made of the government's current penchant for secrecy, few have noticed that this atmosphere now shrouds government history as well.

Working on a biography of a noted Washington journalist, I placed a routine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2011 for her FBI file. The timing of my application seemed propitious. Two years earlier, President Barack Obama had signed an executive order to speed declassification of materials and had issued an encouraging FOIA memorandum.

"All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure," he wrote, "in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government."

In fact, the FBI promptly mailed me the requested file. When I opened it, however, I found the material so extensively redacted that it looked as if the photocopier had spewed mostly blank pages. I immediately appealed to have the file, now decades old, unredacted. I cited the president's memorandum and noted that the subject of my book, Ethel L. Payne, was an African-American. I presumed this administration might be more sympathetic to exposing past FBI transgressions against blacks....



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