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Hillary and the State Department Historian’s Office: A Way Forward

The struggle over the future of the State Department Historian’s Office (HO), my former employer, has entered a new and decisive phase.  Nothing less is at stake than the survival and timely publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documentary series, a living monument to U.S. government openness and transparency established by Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

Since my previous posting on the alleged mismanagement at HO, a special Review Committee for the Historian’s Office, appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has submitted its final report.  Before she left office, Rice forwarded the report to Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy for “appropriate action.”  The bureaucratic process is grinding forward.  On February 20, at the request of the Undersecretary of State for Management, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated an official “inspection” of the Historian’s Office.  Leading the Management Inspection Team reviewing HO is Ambassador Robert Barbour, who recently headed inspections of the U.S. Consulate General in Curaçao and the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, among other places.  According to a State Department spokesman, the team had read the Review Committee’s report before it began its inspection, and the team “is expected to make recommendations in a few weeks.”

Where does all this leave the Historian’s Office and the Historian, Marc J. Susser?  The situation remains unclear.  Some analysts – most notably, Steven Aftergood, who posted a leaked copy of the Review Committee’s report at his Secrecy News website – have criticized the report for being “anticlimactic” and somewhat sparse on details.  Although the OIG team apparently read the Review Committee report, there is no guarantee that they will agree with its implied criticisms of Susser’s management or accept its recommendations.  The OIG prides itself on its independence and objectivity; the inspection team could reach completely different conclusions than the Review Committee.

Nevertheless, a close reading of the Review Committee’s report, including what lies between the lines, does suggest a way forward, in the form of a “reorganization” of the Historian’s Office – a reorganization that could lead to the installation of new leadership.  And the Office of the Inspector General, if it concurs in the Review Committee’s conclusions, has the necessary authority within the State Department to successfully demand such a reorganization. Even if the OIG does not opt for the thoroughgoing measures that are apparently necessary to get the Historian’s Office back on track, the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) – the committee of historians, archivists, and other scholars responsible for overseeing FRUS –  can continue to make its case for change to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and if necessary, the U.S. Congress.

 Below, I will analyze the Review Committee’s report and seek to contextualize it in terms of the various criticisms of it, the recent conflict between Susser and the Historical Advisory Committee, and the bureaucratic realities of the State Department.  I will also examine one potential scenario for reorganization that might preserve Susser’s civil-service protections but also ensure new leadership for FRUS.  The need to preserve civil-service protections helps explain, at least in part, the muted tone of the Review Committee’s report and the deliberate bureaucratic process at the Department of State. 

First, nobody can deny that the Review Committee report is muted in tone and “anticlimactic” in comparison to the very public resignation of William Roger Louis as chairman of the HAC in December.  (It was Louis’s resignation, in protest against Susser’s alleged mismanagement of the office, that led Rice to establish the Review Committee.)  Aftergood, among others, has also noted that the report is sparse on details:  “It does not even mention the name of the State Department Historian, Dr. Marc J. Susser, who has been the focus of the complaints regarding mismanagement.  It also does not explore, much less resolve, any of the specific personnel disputes that have arisen in the Office.”  The report itself explains the failure to go into individual complaints:  “It quickly became apparent that emotions ran high and that there was a great deal of contradictory testimony. Reconciling the contradictions seemed both unlikely (much of it was in one-on-one confrontations) and unproductive.”  The report was likely referring to such allegations as that of former HO employee Craig Daigle – now public – that Susser allegedly threatened to “cut his fucking heart out” if he “sowed dissension” or otherwise created difficulties inside the office.

It would have been difficult to confirm whether such a private conversation took place. Still, the committee might have taken the time to investigate and report on other incidents when multiple employees were present.  For example, I informed the Review Committee about two incidents that I had personally witnessed, both of which contributed to my decision to leave the Historian’s Office.  The first occurred within the earshot of numerous people; I assume that they heard it as well.  After one employee, X, had left the office for a job elsewhere, and another began to throw X’s files onto a trash heap, one supervisor loudly proclaimed:  “That’s it!  Throw everything out!  Cleanse the office of every trace of [X]!”  Just then, Susser walked by and chuckled; perhaps he had not heard the remark? 

Another incident at which I was present occurred in Susser’s office several months after the “cubicle cleansing.”  Susser had assembled everyone working on a particular project, except for one person.  At the meeting Susser voiced concerns – arguably valid ones – about the actions of the absent individual.  When I suggested it might be a good idea to speak with the employee directly, Susser not only rejected the suggestion; he expressly forbade the rest of us from raising the matter with our colleague.  “I need him for this project,” Susser explained.  “Then, after it’s over, when he least expects it, I will be waiting around the corner with a hammer.” When I read about HO’s recent battles with the HAC, including the unceremonious “disinviting” of Professor Schwartz from the committee and the alleged call by a member of Susser’s staff to Louis’s office – warning him that if he read his resignation letter at the HAC meeting, “his career would be over” – I could not help but think of Susser and his erstwhile “hammer.” To be fair, though, the Review Committee had only three weeks to interview the entire office and to compose its report before Rice left office; to investigate all such incidents would have undoubtedly taken more time.  I would not be surprised if the OIG team eventually feels overwhelmed by such anecdotes, too.

In terms of the relationship between the Review Committee’s report and the rift between Susser and the Historical Advisory Committee over whether there is a crisis in the Historian’s Office, the Review Committee has clearly concurred in the HAC’s assessment.  The report reads:  “We find that the current working atmosphere in the HO and between the HO and the HAC poses real threats to the high scholarly quality of the FRUS series and the benefits it brings. Remarkably, in all our interviews and the statements we received, only a single person suggested that there was no crisis, no problem beyond what is normal in an office.”  Moreover, the report speaks of a “management crisis” and suggests that Susser and his management team are responsible:  “Whatever the details of this management crisis, and whosoever is right or wrong, we believe that effective management is the responsibility of the managers, not the managed, and that strong, effective management and leadership will be needed to rebuild and maintain a positive, high-performing team in HO.” Here, the Review Committee also suggests that there was once a “positive, high-performing team in HO,” but something apparently happened.  The problem, it implies, has been the absence of “strong, effective management and leadership” – something which is now “needed.”  At another point the report speaks about the need to restore “Team HO”; to do so will “require diplomacy and leadership; i.e., effective management” – something, again, that has apparently been absent.

In its assessment of the “threats to the high scholarly quality of the FRUS series,” the Review Committee might have been more specific and addressed the HAC’s contention that the loss of experienced employees threatens the timeliness and quality of the FRUS series.  However, this was probably unnecessary.  Although Susser denied at the December meeting of the HAC that the loss of experienced employees would affect the series, he had asserted the opposite at the HAC meeting in September.  The minutes from September included the following exchange:  “Louis asked if there were any further questions, and William Burr from the National Security Archive asked if the planned number of volumes covering the Reagan administration have shifted at all. Susser replied that they have not yet, but that soon there should be a trip out to the Reagan library to check its holdings, after which there may be some changes. Burr said that 38 seemed like a low number, and Susser replied that the office has discussed this thoroughly, but that there are several factors (30-year line, number of compilers and their clearances and experience, etc.) that limit the number of Reagan volumes the office could do [emphasis added].” At least in the case of the Reagan Administration, the experience of the compilers, Susser admitted, will affect the thoroughness of coverage in terms of the number of volumes.  Susser’s statement also suggests a potential  strategy he will adopt in order to meet FRUS’s statutory 30-year line:  cut the number of volumes and thus downgrade the thoroughness of coverage. 

Previous HAC meeting minutes also debunk another claim by Susser at the December meeting – namely, that HO is making progress towards meeting the 30-year line.  In December, an analysis approved by Susser stated:  “A review of the publication schedule for the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations shows that volumes were published, on average, 33 years after the event. By cutting the delay down to31 to 32 years—by the General Editor’s estimate—we are actually making progress toward reaching the 30-year line, rather than moving away from it.” This assertion directly contradicts the previous public testimony of former General Editor Ted Keefer at the June 2008 HAC meeting:  “Thirty-three of the Nixon volumes remained to be published, and the average volume was published 34 years after the fact. The average Truman and Eisenhower volumes had been published after 33 years.” There is no mention here of “31 to 32 years” as HO claims. Indeed, Keefer also stated: “Only 3 Nixon-Ford volumes [out of 57, or 5.3%] had been published within the 30-year limit. In contrast, 30% of the Eisenhower volumes, 16% of the Kennedy volumes, and 34% of the Johnson volumes had met the 30-year limit.”  The HAC might want to review these assertions with Susser when it meets this week.

More important than the Review Committee’s admittedly general assessment of the management crisis in the Historian’s Office is its proposed solution.  The committee hinted at a need for a “reorganization”:  “We find that there are major management challenges in the HO that warrant serious consideration of a reorganization of that office. In any event, whosoever is The Historian should have clear and unequivocal work requirements that set forth improving morale and trust within the office as a primary and immediate goal.”  It is undoubtedly significant that in the context of a potential “reorganization,” the committee refers – rather Biblically – to “whosoever is Historian”; that is, the committee hints at the possibility of a new Historian taking office as part of the reorganization.  Why didn’t the committee simply suggest replacing Susser?  One possibility is that the committee was divided; the door is left open for Susser to remain as Historian, subject to “clear and unequivocal work requirements that set forth improving morale and trust within the office” and heightened oversight (see point 4).  Another possible reason why the Review Committee chose not to speak to Susser’s future are his protections as a civil servant; one cannot simply fire a civil servant, and rightly so.  However, it is apparently possible to transfer members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) such as Susser to another SES post within the agency where they work four months after their supervisor from the incoming Presidential administration assumes office.

One potential reorganization scenario might entail moving the two divisions of the Historian’s Office working on policy research and outreach to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) as part of a new “Historical Policy Studies Office” under the direction of Susser, who would assume a new SES position as head of the newly-established office.  The three compiling divisions of FRUS and the editing and declassification division would remain in a newly-streamlined Historian’s Office, which would concentrate almost exclusively on FRUS, along with joint documentary projects with other countries – e.g., the ongoing projects with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Russia and China.  This, of course, is just one of many possibilities, and the Office of Inspector General has more experience with such reorganizations and knows all the relevant rules and regulations.  The advantage of such a reorganization, however, would be that the expertise in historical policy studies, reinvigorated by Susser, would not be lost, and the Historian’s Office could rededicate itself almost exclusively to the production of FRUS.  After such a reorganization, the Historical Advisory Committee might urge the Department of State to appoint additional staff to the four FRUS divisions so that HO can catch up to FRUS’s statutory 30-year line.

We can only hope that this week’s Historical Advisory Committee meeting will provide additional information about the state of things at HO, including any potential reorganization.  Within a few weeks, the OIG should complete its inspection, and its report should be made public as soon as possible.  This will make clear whether the Department of State plans to take all necessary steps in terms of organization and personnel to ensure the timely publication of “thorough, accurate and reliable” FRUS volumes, in keeping with statutory requirements.  It will also make clear whether the Historical Advisory Committee, the historical community, and the general public need to undertake further efforts to ensure openness and transparency at the Department of State and to save the Foreign Relations series.