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Trapped in the Archives

The U.S. Government’s System for Declassifying Historical Documents Is in Crisis

A classified document in the Oval O​ffice of the White House, November 2007 Christopher Morris / VII / Red​ux

Did the United States have a hand in assassinating Congolese and Dominican leaders in 1961? What did President Richard Nixon’s White House know about a successful plot to kill the head of the Chilean army in 1970? After the Cold War ended, did top U.S. military commanders retain the authority to strike back if a surprise nuclear attack put the president out of commission?

The answers to these and other historical mysteries are likely knowable—but they are locked in presidential libraries and government archives and inaccessible to researchers. The reason: the U.S. government’s system for declassifying and processing historical records has reached a state of crisis. Congress has failed to adequately fund the parts of the government charged with processing records, resulting in understaffed offices and years-long backlogs. At the same time, some agencies responsible for declassifying documents have deliberately dragged their feet and erred on the side of needless secrecy.

Declassification is vital to a thriving democracy. Not only does it help the public hold leaders accountable; it also allows for a more accurate and comprehensive accounting of the past.

Without declassification, the American hand in the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 would have remained hidden, and Americans would have no way of understanding their country’s Third World meddling. The exposure, through declassification, of the CIA’s assassination plotting in the late 1950s and early 1960s produced public pressure that resulted in executive orders banning political assassinations. Declassified documents brought to light the intelligence failures during 1962 that delayed the detection of Soviet missile deployments in Cuba.

For every secret revealed, however, untold numbers are still hidden away. Only by unsealing its archives can the United States live up to its ideals as an open society and learn from its past.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

By law, the classified documents that most federal agencies produce in the course of their work—from State Department cables to Pentagon policy papers to White House e-mails—must be preserved and eventually transferred

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