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If Obama Wants to Demonstrate Transparency, He Can Start with the State Department's Historian's Office

Henry Kissinger once famously quipped, “academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.”  Ironically, a struggle in academic politics is taking place at Kissinger’s old watch, the Department of State, that could affect U.S. government openness and transparency for decades to come. The stakes could not be higher. It will serve as a test case for the commitment of the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to transparency and open government.

The struggle involves the venerable documentary series, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), founded by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Published by the Historian’s Office at the Department of State, it makes available to the public thousands of pages of previously-classified documents on U.S. foreign policy from the highest levels of government – the White House, the National Security Council (NSC), the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Department of Defense. It is one of the first stops for scholars, historians, and others seeking to find out the formerly secret history of U.S. foreign policy.  In terms of government declassification, the Historian’s Office is the “little engine that could” – a small government office that often pulls the whole government’s process of declassification forward.  There are documents in the FRUS series that scholars cannot obtain anywhere else.  The historians working on the series have security clearances and can look at the most secret government records and can work to obtain their declassification.  Other scholars, after reading the documents in FRUS, can then work to obtain the declassification of similar documents throughout the U.S. government.

A public committee of historians, archivists, and social scientists overseeing FRUS – the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) – recently sounded an alarm about the series.  On December 10, 2008, at what one observer called a “tense and adversarial meeting,” the chairman of this watchdog committee, Professor William Roger Louis, resigned in protest over alleged “mismanagement” of the series by the current Historian of the State Department, Marc Susser.  Louis, a former president of the American Historical Association (AHA), read his letter of resignation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice into the meeting’s record. “The Historian’s Office,” he said, “has become an intolerable place to work; the exodus of experienced historians is significant; and the future of the Foreign Relations series is at risk.” During the last year alone, an attachment to Louis’s letter noted, the office had lost 64 years of experience out of 212 among the staff working on FRUS

Why is this loss of experience significant?  Well, everyone knows how long it takes to go down to the local motor vehicle office and obtain a driver’s license.  Imagine dropping by CIA or NSC headquarters and asking to look at their most important top secret records.  Even if you know what you are doing, it takes time to get into the necessary archives and to find the most important documents relating to U.S. foreign policy.  Every time a new historian begins work on FRUS, they start from scratch with clearances, permissions from individual agencies, learning the quirks of individual archive.  Each new compiler must also learn the FRUS style, which has its own idiosyncrasies.  Based on my own experience as a former employee of five years in the Historian’s Office (HO), this learning curve adds at least one year to a person’s first FRUS volume.  When so many experienced compilers leave the Historian’s Office, this has an impact on quality and deadlines.  Not surprisingly, HO is currently in default when it comes to statutory guidelines.  By statute the series must constitute a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions,” and the Secretary of State has the responsibility to “ensure that the FRUS series … [is] published not more than 30 years after the events recorded.” Currently, the series is at least 32 years behind and falling.  This means, for example, the public may have to wait around 40 years instead of 30 to learn the whole story of Vice President Dick Cheney’s involvement in the Iraq War.

What has been the response of the Historian’s Office (HO) to this public criticism? One response has been denial, in both the psychological and the political sense.  All the experienced people who have left or who will leave, HO asserts, can be replaced with “highly skilled researchers,” fresh out of the university, thanks in large part to the dismal job market for diplomatic historians. This revolving-door approach to hiring and employee retention not only ignores the importance of experience, as noted above; it also neglects bureaucratic realities.  There are sometimes hiring freezes – e.g., when a new administration comes into office – and this can mean further delays in hiring the new employees and thus in FRUS volumes. Whereas previously many historians entered the office as more or less permanent career-conditional employees, many now begin their work as contractors, thanks to the push towards contractors in the former Bush Administration.  The lack of job security and sometimes a cut in pay when they are finally converted to full-time employees has not helped retention. Quite tellingly, HO has responded to the committee’s criticism not by explaining any steps it has taken or will take to retain experienced employees; instead, it has responded by claiming it can rapidly replace experienced people with new, inexperienced people. Such an attitude is part of the problem, not the solution.

Another, more typical response to the concerns expressed by the scholars on the advisory committee has been to shout them down or to “kill the messenger.”  As Louis read his letter of resignation at the December 2008 meeting of the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC), Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Sean McCormack, the State Department’s spokesperson under Secretary Condoleezza Rice, interrupted Louis, shouted that he was “trafficking in rumors and innuendo,” and stormed out of the meeting. The day before the meeting, one of Susser’s staff allegedly called Louis’s office to warn him that if he made the letter public, “his career would be over.” McCormack’s performance led one advisory committee member, Prof. Tom Zeiler, to conclude:  “You’re seeing a reflection of the Bush-Cheney Administration. You know: you’re with us or you’re not with us.”

More ominously, Professor Thomas Schwartz, former president of the Society for the Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), was not renewed – or, less politely, purged – from the advisory committee after drafting the committee’s critical annual report about the functioning of the Historian’s Office.  The removal of Schwartz led another committee member, Professor Edward Rhodes of Rutgers University, to resign in protest.  Schwartz’s removal, he wrote to Secretary Rice, “appears to reasonable, informed observers as a calculated, punitive step by the department designed to intimidate the Advisory Committee and to reduce its independence.” If this is how HO treats independent, established scholars critical of its work outside the office, how does it deal with criticisms internally?  One former employee, Craig Daigle, provided insight in a memorandum to the advisory committee.  Susser, he claimed, warned him that if he “committed any mistake, had any problems with security issues, or created any dissension within the office, he would ‘cut my fucking heart out.’ ” In a parting statement, Schwartz summed up his experience.  He suggested that HO should look for new advisory committee members “in North Korea, which requires the type of subservience and devotion to the Dear Leader that the management of the Historian’s Office seems to prefer.”  Dealing with North Korea, it seems, begins at home.

Secretary of State Rice, to her credit, took the advisory committee’s concerns more seriously than her erstwhile subordinates.  On December 22, she met with the members of the advisory committee, as well as its former chairman, Louis, and the exiled Tom Schwartz.  Rice “stated her strong support for the FRUS series and underscored its importance to academic and general audiences.” She also announced the appointment of an “outside Review Team to provide recommendations about how to ensure the FRUS series remains the gold standard for diplomatic history scholarship.” Days before the change in administration, the review committee submitted its report, and on January 16, Rice reportedly “asked Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy to take appropriate action.”  It remains to be seen what, if any, action was taken.  Most likely, the report and its recommendations slipped through the cracks as the new administration came into office. 

In other words, it has been left to Secretary of State Clinton to fix the problem; it will be the first test case of openness and transparency for her new administration at the Department of State. One can only hope that she, in keeping with the proclaimed policy of President Obama, will save the Department’s documentary inheritance from President Lincoln and restore transparency to the Office of the Historian and the Bureau of Public Affairs.  A good first step would be to release the review committee’s report to the Historical Advisory Committee and the public, as recommended by the Council of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.  She might also restore Schwartz, Louis, and Rhodes to the advisory committee, if they would want to serve again, and – most importantly – take the necessary administrative measures to improve the retention of skilled employees and to insure in general that the Historian’s Office meets its statutory deadline for publishing FRUS volumes.

 If not, we will have to wait a long, long time to learn the full story of the Iraq War, let alone the foreign policies of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations. And State Department offices will learn that it is acceptableto intimidate and bully advisory committees, even those established by law.