Foreign Affairs

Cold War International History Conference: Paper by Michael J. Kurtz

Session I

NARA and Cold War Documentation: Access vs. Restriction

Impact of Executive Order 12958

by Michael J. Kurtz

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has tens of millions of pages in its holdings, both in the National Archives in Washington and in various Presidential Libraries, relating to the Cold War. Records of the President and Executive Branch agencies such as the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the various components of the intelligence community, form a rich store of research material. Access to much of this material is governed by the restrictions involved with national security-classified information.

A major milestone from the point of view of access to classified records occurred with the issuance by President Clinton in April 1995 of Executive Order 12958, which made major changes in the management of classified records. One of the most significant provisions formally institutes for the first time the concept of automatic declassification. The idea is that when historically valuable classified records are twenty-five years old they will be automatically declassified, unless an agency makes an affirmative decision that the records fall into one of nine exempt categories provided in the Order, and thus require continued classification.

To deal with the vast backlog of classified historical material twenty-five years old or older, the Order mandated that these records would be automatically declassified in April 2000 unless exemptions were determined for specific records. Thus, historical records through 1975, which covers most of the Cold War period, will be automatically declassified unless specific actions are taken. When the Order was issued NARA had in its holding 682,000,000 million pages of classified records in the twenty-five year old or older category.

There are a variety of complications which affect the declassification process. The Archivist does not have independent authority to declassify records. This can be done only through delegation, in the form of written guidance, from the agencies which originally classified the information. For certain agencies and categories of records NARA has received no declassification authority. As a result, approximately 30% of NARA's classified accessioned records must be reviewed by agency personnel prior to the April 2000 automatic declassification deadline. At this point a number of agencies have stationed their personnel at the National Archives at College Park to review those records for which NARA staff does not have declassification guidelines.

Implementation of the Executive Order in the Presidential Libraries presents its own set of problems. The level of sensitivity of the information is much higher in the Presidential Library holdings in comparison with agency records accessioned into the National Archives. Agency declassification guidelines provide Presidential Library staff authority to declassify a much smaller percentage of the information in the Libraries. Furthermore, many documents contain mixed equities of several agencies and it is not always easy to identify the appropriate agency. All these factors, in addition to the scattered location of the Libraries, makes it difficult for agency personnel to review the seven million pages of material in the Presidential Libraries covered by the Order.

In response to this situation the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in cooperation with other agency equity holders, has organized a project, known as the Remote Archives Capture Project (RAC), designed to address these problems. The project sends out teams to the Libraries to scan the documents requiring review, and return the scanned images to Washington for distribution to the appropriate agencies for review. The results of the agency reviews are to be returned to the Libraries for release to the public of what has been declassified. At this time, the CIA has completed two pilot projects and perfected the scanning technique but is still working to resolve issues related to referring documents to other equity holders. One area of potential concern is the need for other participating agencies to support the project with funding so that the CIA can continue this work. Without support from other agencies, the CIA cannot continue to bear the entire cost of sending out the scanning teams.

The Presidential Libraries have aggressively pursued getting additional review guidance from the classifying agencies so that they can systematically review Presidential papers. The State Department and the NSC have paid visits to the Libraries and have updated their guidance.

To date, through the efforts of NARA staff and agency reviewers, approximately 300,000,000 pages in NARA's holdings have been declassified.

Cold War Records Released

Many records significant for research have been released and are available. These include:

-State Department records totaling 44,000,000 pages include records from the State Department's Central Foreign Policy Files (1945-1973), Foreign Service Post Files (1945-1975), and Departmental Lot Files (1945-1975). The Central Foreign Policy Files is the most important series of State Department records on the Cold War. Under EO 12958, we have opened the 1964-1969 files and previously unopened sections of the 1945-1963 files. We are now working toward a 12/31/98 deadline for opening the 1970-1973 files. Among the lot files opened were office files for key State Department figures such as Averell Harriman, Lewellyn Thompson, Dean Rusk, George W. Ball, and Ellsworth Bunker, the Executive Secretariat's "Crisis" files from 1967-1968 concerning the Middle East, the "Pueblo" incident, Czechoslovakia, the Dominican Republic, and Cyprus, files identified as possible sources of information on Nazi Gold, the Executive Secretariat's conference file collection for 1955-1972, and various bureau and country desk subject files.

-Office of the Secretary of Defense records totaling 2,000,000 pages include various subject, decimal, and report files (1947-1966) and records of the Munitions Board (1947-1954). The subject and decimal files deal mostly with the early days of the Cold War and include office files of James Forrestal and Robert Lovett and Korean War armistice and POW/MIA files.

-United States Agency for International Development (USAID) records totaling 7,000,000 pages include records of predecessor agencies (1949-1961), the earliest days of USAID (1961-1966), the Office of Public Safety (1957-1974), and records of the Director of USAID and his immediate subordinates (1961-1987).

-Treasury Department records totaling 2,000,000 pages include records from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for International Affairs (1945-1973) especially records related to the search for assets appropriated by the Nazis during World War II (Nazi Gold).

-United States Information Agency records totaling 1,000,000 pages include records from the earliest years of the U.S. information program (1945-1954) and research report and budget files (1945-1967).

-U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) records totaling 250,000 pages include ACDA files relating to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, records of U.S. participation in SALT negotiations, and various subject files (1962-1982).

- U.S. Forces in Southeast Asia (1950-1975) records totaling 7,000,000 pages include field and headquarters records for the U.S. military commands in Vietnam and Thailand.

- International trade records (1945-1971) totaling 3,000,000 pages include records of the Office of Foreign Direct Investment, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Bureau of Export Administration, and International Trade Administration.

- Various military overseas and occupation command records (1945-1975) totaling 21,000,000 pages include records from the Far Eastern Command, European Theater of Operations, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Island, Allied Military Government of the Free Territory of Trieste, and the U.S. Army Europe.

Highlights of files opened in Presidential Libraries include:

-At the Eisenhower Library, about 80,000 pages opened through systematic review including material dealing with the USSR, US policy toward Eastern Europe, the Berlin Crisis, and the Korean War.

-At the Kennedy Library, in excess of 225,000 pages including material dealing with Germany and the USSR. The Library has also released significant Kennedy tapes dealing with foreign policy topics including those pertaining to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

-At the Johnson Library, approximately 100,000 pages including significant material on the Pueblo Crisis, the US trade embargo with Cuba, and the Vietnam War. The Johnson Library has also opened significant tapes dealing with foreign policy topics including US relations with Cuba, the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, and the Gulf of Tonkin attacks in August 1964 and September 1964.

Still Sensitive Information

Although ninety-eight percent of the records processed thus far by NARA have been released, a few documents have been exempted from declassification. Except for unique items such as Secret Service records relating to the protection of the President and Internal Revenue Service tax information, most exempt items fall into one of four broad categories:

-Atomic Energy - Many aspects of the development, production, storage, and use of nuclear weapons remains sensitive as does information on nuclear propulsion systems for submarines. Most of these documents are marked Restricted Data (RD) or Formerly Restricted Data (FRD)and are thus excluded from Executive Order 12958, but agencies have found many unmarked documents stored with them and excluded them as well. Eventually, a great deal of additional material might be released following review by the Department of Energy.

-Intelligence Sources and Methods - The intelligence agencies are especially concerned about documents that contain named sources or which identify U.S. or foreign intelligence personnel. They are also concerned about the lesser number of documents that reveal intelligence methods and operational details. The intelligence agencies have promised to provide NARA with sanitization instructions for withheld documents. These instructions should result in the declassification of most portions of documents withheld for intelligence information.

-Sensitive Foreign Relations Information - Sensitive foreign relations information such as U.S. internal policy discussions relating to current border disputes between other nations (Kashmir, the Middle East, etc.) remain classified, but, surprisingly little of this sort of information remains after review by State Department experts. Other agencies have identified larger volumes, but they defer to the State Department for final decision in most cases, which will mean eventual declassification of much more material.

-Foreign Government Information - Many agencies claim they do not have authority to release Foreign government Information in their files.


NARA has made major strides in making Cold War history records available for research. However, the volume of records still requiring review at NARA prior to April 2000, as well as records still in agency custody, poses a significant challenge. Nevertheless, NARA, in fulfillment of its mission to provide ready access to essential evidence, remains committed to meeting the goals set out in the Executive Order. NARA believes the Executive Order has reinvigorated the Government's declassification program and is an essential tool in providing information vital for researchers and the general public.