Statement of David M. Barrett before the Public Interest Declassification Board
July 22, 2010
David M. Barrett,
Thank you. I am a political scientist professor who does historical research; I was asked to describe my "experience doing research using congressional records that had once been classified."
Most of my research in cong papers was for "The CIA and Congress" pub in 2005 which dealt with 1947-1961; I continue researching for another volume on CIA, Congress, and the JFK White House, but my recent research has been in papers of exec branch.
There is widespread notion, repeated endlessly in books and articles, that there was no congressional oversight of the CIA in the early Cold War. This is inaccurate; there was some degree of oversight/monitoring, but--compared to recent decades, it was limited and informal, carried out by members of 4 very secret and informal subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations and Armed Services Committees.
For my last book, I went through papers of about 18 members of Congress, all deceased; these were in archives scattered around the country. I also examined, to the extent possible, papers at National Archives of the H and S committees on Armed Services and Appropriations, as well as Foreign Relations, and HUAC and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired infamously by Sen Joe McCarthy. I also spent time at the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presidential libraries.
a. Again, I was interested in the years 1947 to 1961. At the archives scattered around the country, some collections had been cleared of all CIA-related memoranda and records. The papers of Clarence Cannon, chair of H Approp for many years, are of no value to a researcher. By contrast, the papers of Sen Style Bridges or Rep George Mahon have significant records relating to CIA.
The good/bad news is that those papers that were useful seem not have been examined by the US government prior to their being made available to researchers. I am hesitant to admit this and I hope you will urge no action to change this situation. Let this sleeping dog lie.
I am disappointed, to say the least, that some collections were obviously cleansed before being made available, though this probably reflected the wishes of the late Congress member.
Some Congress members, including Gerald Ford and Carl Vinson approved the destruction of all or part of their papers relating to national security. What a loss.
With few exceptions, the staff members at archives holding these papers of late members of Congress are very helpful, but they seem to know nothing about when or why papers were destroyed or removed from the collections.
b. At National Archives, despite the assistance from wonderful archivists, my experience was generally quite frustrating.
For the years of interest to me, 1947-1961, there are no records of the House Appropriations Committee relating to national security. None. And my recollection is that there were no record relating to anything!
There are no records on anything to do with the CIA in the highly fragmentary records of the House Armed Services Committee. What records there are for this committee in "my" timeframe are probably of no interest to any scholar.
(Mind you, I found crucial records of what those committees and their leaders did re: CIA in other archives around the country.)
The records of the Senate Armed Services Committee that have been made available to researchers that relate to the CIA are very modestly useful. But, if I understood the archivists correctly, there are records from this timeframe, especially the very early 1960s that exist but are not yet available to researchers. The reasons had to do with rules and leadership decisions of the Armed Services Committee. For example, I would love to see certain records of the Preparedness Subcommittee from the early 1960s which I was told exist.
The records of the Senate Appropriations Committee at Nat Archives are essentially useless to researchers interested in national security. I suspect that relevant records were destroyed long ago.
Certain records of the HUAC and the McCarthy (Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) subcommittee of the early 1950s have finally been declassified and made available at National Archives to researchers and are useful on certain national security/intelligence topics.
c. On the whole, I think Congress has done no better and probably a worse job than the executive branch in preserving and making available national security records from the early Cold War era.
It's a shame, since I think--I know--Congress mattered in this era in affecting national security policy.
I am not that knowledgeable about current laws/ regulations, so forgive me if my recommendations show some ignorance:
I hope you push members of Congress and committees to save national security records!
I am baffled, distressed, dismayed that so many records from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are still unavailable to researchers. This is true re: exec branch and congressional records. It is inconceivable to me that, except for the name of certain foreign individuals who gave crucial assistance to the U.S. government agencies like CIA, records from 4 or more decades ago are not completely declassified and made available for public inspection.
I understand that most members of the public do not consider this a crucial issue. The fact remains that, at the heart of democracy, both in theory and in practice, is openness about what the government does and has done, so that the public can make judgments about the government's performance. Declassification of documents is a concrete example of openness.