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Historians and CIA files


John Simkin
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Here is an article that appeared in the New York Times on February 21, 2006:

U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review

By SCOTT SHANE

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 — In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.

The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000 previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies objected to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill Clinton. It accelerated after the Bush administration took office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to archives records.

But because the reclassification program is itself shrouded in secrecy — governed by a still-classified memorandum that prohibits the National Archives even from saying which agencies are involved — it continued virtually without outside notice until December. That was when an intelligence historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the archives' open shelves.

Mr. Aid was struck by what seemed to him the innocuous contents of the documents — mostly decades-old State Department reports from the Korean War and the early cold war. He found that eight reclassified documents had been previously published in the State Department's history series, "Foreign Relations of the United States."

"The stuff they pulled should never have been removed," he said. "Some of it is mundane, and some of it is outright ridiculous."

After Mr. Aid and other historians complained, the archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees government classification, began an audit of the reclassification program, said J. William Leonard, director of the office.

Mr. Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret.

"If those sample records were removed because somebody thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed," Mr. Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the mind."

If Mr. Leonard finds that documents are being wrongly reclassified, his office could not unilaterally release them. But as the chief adviser to the White House on classification, he could urge a reversal or a revision of the reclassification program.

A group of historians, including representatives of the National Coalition for History and the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, wrote to Mr. Leonard on Friday to express concern about the reclassification program, which they believe has blocked access to some material at the presidential libraries as well as at the archives.

Among the 50 withdrawn documents that Mr. Aid found in his own files is a 1948 memorandum on a C.I.A. scheme to float balloons over countries behind the Iron Curtain and drop propaganda leaflets. It was reclassified in 2001 even though it had been published by the State Department in 1996.

Another historian, William Burr, found a dozen documents he had copied years ago whose reclassification he considers "silly," including a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan, then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program.

Under existing guidelines, government documents are supposed to be declassified after 25 years unless there is particular reason to keep them secret. While some of the choices made by the security reviewers at the archives are baffling, others seem guided by an old bureaucratic reflex: to cover up embarrassments, even if they occurred a half-century ago.

One reclassified document in Mr. Aid's files, for instance, gives the C.I.A.'s assessment on Oct. 12, 1950, that Chinese intervention in the Korean War was "not probable in 1950." Just two weeks later, on Oct. 27, some 300,000 Chinese troops crossed into Korea.

Mr. Aid said he believed that because of the reclassification program, some of the contents of his 22 file cabinets might technically place him in violation of the Espionage Act, a circumstance that could be shared by scores of other historians. But no effort has been made to retrieve copies of reclassified documents, and it is not clear how they all could even be located.

"It doesn't make sense to create a category of documents that are classified but that everyone already has," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University. "These documents were on open shelves for years."

The group plans to post Mr. Aid's reclassified documents and his account of the secret program on its Web site, www.nsarchive.org, on Tuesday.

The program's critics do not question the notion that wrongly declassified material should be withdrawn. Mr. Aid said he had been dismayed to see "scary" documents in open files at the National Archives, including detailed instructions on the use of high explosives.

But the historians say the program is removing material that can do no conceivable harm to national security. They say it is part of a marked trend toward greater secrecy under the Bush administration, which has increased the pace of classifying documents, slowed declassification and discouraged the release of some material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Experts on government secrecy believe the C.I.A. and other spy agencies, not the White House, are the driving force behind the reclassification program.

"I think it's driven by the individual agencies, which have bureaucratic sensitivities to protect," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, editor of the online weekly Secrecy News. "But it was clearly encouraged by the administration's overall embrace of secrecy."

National Archives officials said the program had revoked access to 9,500 documents, more than 8,000 of them since President Bush took office. About 30 reviewers — employees and contractors of the intelligence and defense agencies — are at work each weekday at the archives complex in College Park, Md., the officials said.

Archives officials could not provide a cost for the program but said it was certainly in the millions of dollars, including more than $1 million to build and equip a secure room where the reviewers work.

Michael J. Kurtz, assistant archivist for record services, said the National Archives sought to expand public access to documents whenever possible but had no power over the reclassifications. "The decisions agencies make are those agencies' decisions," Mr. Kurtz said.

Though the National Archives are not allowed to reveal which agencies are involved in the reclassification, one archivist said on condition of anonymity that the C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency were major participants.

A spokesman for the C.I.A., Paul Gimigliano, said that the agency had released 26 million pages of documents to the National Archives since 1998 and that it was "committed to the highest quality process" for deciding what should be secret.

"Though the process typically works well, there will always be the anomaly, given the tremendous amount of material and multiple players involved," Mr. Gimigliano said.

A spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency said he was unable to comment on whether his agency was involved in the program.

Anna K. Nelson, a foreign policy historian at American University, said she and other researchers had been puzzled in recent years by the number of documents pulled from the archives with little explanation.

"I think this is a travesty," said Dr. Nelson, who said she believed that some reclassified material was in her files. "I think the public is being deprived of what history is really about: facts."

The document removals have not been reported to the Information Security Oversight Office, as the law has required for formal reclassifications since 2003.

The explanation, said Mr. Leonard, the head of the office, is a bureaucratic quirk. The intelligence agencies take the position that the reclassified documents were never properly declassified, even though they were reviewed, stamped "declassified," freely given to researchers and even published, he said.

Thus, the agencies argue, the documents remain classified — and pulling them from public access is not really reclassification.

Mr. Leonard said he believed that while that logic might seem strained, the agencies were technically correct. But he said the complaints about the secret program, which prompted his decision to conduct an audit, showed that the government's system for deciding what should be secret is deeply flawed.

"This is not a very efficient way of doing business," Mr. Leonard said. "There's got to be a better way."

Freedom of information goes to the heart of democracy. How can the electorate make logical judgements about their politicians if they are allowed to keep important facts out of the public domain?

It seems that on March 25, 2003, President Bush signed executive order 13292. This little-known document grants the greatest expansion of the power of the vice-president in US history. It gives the vice-president the same authority to classify intelligence as the president. Is it Cheney who has been deciding to classify released CIA documents?

Lewis “Scooter” Libby is currently arguing that he leaked classified material at the behest of Cheney. It now appears that the material was not really classified because it had been declassified by Cheney.

The first US vice-president, John Adams, called his position, “the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” It seems that executive order 13292 has changed the situation. In fact, Sidney Blumenthal has claimed that this executive order was part of a coup d’etat.

You can find a practical example of the reclassifying of CIA documents released by the actions of Bill Clinton here:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=5945

In 1992 the Central Intelligence Agency hired the young historian Nick Cullather to write a history (classified “secret” and for internal distribution only) of Operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the lawful government of Guatemala in 1954. Given full access to the Agency’s archives he produced an insider’s account, intended as a training manual for covert operators, detailing how the CIA chose targets, planned strategies, developed black propaganda campaigns, organized the mechanics of waging a secret war, etc.

In 1995 President Bill Clinton ordered the declassification of CIA documents that no longer protected American security. As a result, Cullather’s account of this CIA operation was declassified in 1997.

Cullather was aware that it was possible that under a more secretive president, this document might be declassified. This has of course happened under George Bush.

Therefore Cullather decided to write an account of the events in Guatemala based on the CIA sources he discovered when he was doing his research. The book, Secret History: The CIA Classified Account of Operations in Guatemala 1952-1954, was published in 1999.

The book makes clear why Republican presidents have worked very closely with the CIA to prevent documents being released.

In the 1930s Sam Zemurray aligned United Fruit Company closely with the government of President Jorge Ubico. The company received import duty and real estate tax exemptions from Ubico. He also gave them hundreds of square miles of land. United Fruit controlled more land than any other individual or group. It also owned the railway, the electric utilities, telegraph, and the country's only port at Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast.

In June, 1944, teachers in Guatemala went on strike for higher pay. Other professions joined the teachers in street demonstrations. Ubico sent in the army and over 200 protesters were killed. This included Maria Chinchilla, the leader of the teachers' union movement.

A few days later, a group of over 300 teachers, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen handed a petition to Ubico in which demanded that the demonstrators' actions were legitimate. At this stage, the United States withdrew its support of Ubico. General Francisco Ponce became Guatemala's new dictator. In an attempt to gain public support, Ponce announced democratic elections. He selected himself as presidential candidate, while the opposition picked the former teacher, Juan Jose Arevalo, who was living in exile in Argentina. Afraid that he would lose the election, Ponce ordered Arevalo's arrest as soon as he arrived back in Guatemala.

Appalled by the actions of Ponce, Jacobo Arbenz and a fellow junior officer, Major Francisco Arana, organized a military rebellion. They were quickly joined by other officers and attacked the pro-Ponce military and police forces. Ponce and Ubico were forced to abandon the country and Arbenz and Arana created a provisional junta with businessman, Jorge Toriello, and promised free and democratic elections.

Arbenz and Arana introduced a new constitution. Censorship was brought to an end, men and women were declared equal before the law, racial discrimination was declared a crime, higher education was free of governmental control, private monopolies were banned, workers were assured a forty-hour week, payment in coupons was forbidden, and labour unions were legalized. Juan Jose Arevalo won the first elections and attempted to begin an age of reforms in Guatemala. Arevalo described himself as a "spiritual socialist". He implemented sweeping reforms by passing new laws that gave workers the right to form unions. This included the 40,000 Guatemalans who worked for the United Fruit Company.

Sam Zemurray feared that Arevalo would also nationalize the land owned by United Fruit in Guatemala. He asked the political lobbyist Tommy Corcoran to express his fears to senior political figures in Washington. Corcoran began talks with key people in the government agencies and departments that shaped U.S. policy in Central America. He argued that the U.S. should use United Fruit as an American beachhead against communism in the region.

The problem was that Arevalo was not a communist. It therefore became the policy of United Fruit and the CIA to convince the Harry Truman administration that Arevalo was a communist. It was not too difficult for Zemurray and the CIA to recruit Arana in their attempt to overthrow Arevalo. Unlike Arbenz, Arana did not support Arevalo’s social reforms.

In July, 1949, with the backing of United Fruit and the CIA, Arana presented Arevalo “with an ultimatum demanding that he surrender power to the Army and fill out the remainder of his term as a civilian figure-head for a military regime.”

Arevalo realized that Guatemala’s experiment with democracy was in grave danger. He therefore appealed to Arbenz, who was still committed to the democratic system, to defend his democratically elected government. Arbenz supplied Arevalo with the names of young officers who he knew to be loyal to the idea of democracy. Arevalo then ordered these officers to arrest Arana. Caught crossing a bridge, Arana resisted arrest, and during the resulting gunfight, Arana and several others were killed.

Arevalo then made the mistake of not telling the country about the attempted coup. Instead he claimed that Arana had been killed by unknown assassins. The CIA immediately spread the rumour that Arevalo and Arbenz had used communists to kill Arana. This resulted in another coup attempt by army officers loyal to Arana and the United Fruit Company. However, some members of the armed forces remained loyal to Arevalo. So did the trade unions that had originally overthrown the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. Arana’s supporters were defeated and Arevalo remained in power. Once again Arbenz had become a national hero and his election to the presidency was ensured.

In the spring of 1950, Corcoran went to see Thomas C. Mann, the director of the State Department’s Office of Inter-American Affairs. Corcoran asked Mann if he had any plans to prevent Arbenz from being elected. Mann replied: “That is for the people of that country to decide.” Unhappy with this reply, Corcoran paid a call on the Allen Dulles, the deputy director of the CIA. Dulles, who represented United Fruit in the 1930s, was far more interested in Corcoran’s ideas. “During their meeting Dulles explained to Corcoran that while the CIA was sympathetic to United Fruit, he could not authorize any assistance without the support of the State Department. Dulles assured Corcoran, however, that whoever was elected as the next president of Guatemala would not be allowed to nationalize the operations of United Fruit.”

In 1951 Arbenz defeated Manuel Ygidoras to become Guatemala's new president. Arbenz had obtained 65% of the votes cast.

Harry Truman refused permission for the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected president. However, Dwight Eisenhower, did not share Truman’s views on democracy and soon after he was elected in November, 1952, he gave permission for the CIA to overthrow Arbenz. It was not the only time in his eight year reign that he used the CIA to smear political leaders as “communists”. It was a tactic that was also used by Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior.

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Well, John, so Arbenz was democratically elected?

Geez, did you READ what you posted? Here is what you wrote:

Arbenz supplied Arevalo with the names of young officers who he knew to be loyal to the idea of democracy. Arevalo then ordered these officers to arrest Arana.

So officers designated by Arbenz shot to death Arana and justified it by saying that Arana was resisting arrest. How convenient for Arbenz that the officers he designated just happened to kill his main opponent.

Seems like you've got your blinders on to anything done by the left.

Can you imagine if George Bush had ordered the arrest of John Kerry and in the process Kerry was shot to death and the Bush operatives claimed he was "resisting arrest". Would that at least not cause you to raise an eyebrow and question the accuracy of the official story? I mean if you believe that Arana was actually resisting arrest, you might as well believe the WC report. That claim smells worse than a barrel of rotten fish.

So what we have is that officers loyal to Arbenz and designated by him shot and killed Arbenz's principal political opponent, thereby ensuring Arbenz's "democratic" victory.

Ain't what I call democracy, John.

It was Arevalo, not Arbenz who ordered Arana’s arrest. This was as a result of Arana presenting Arevalo “with an ultimatum demanding that he surrender power to the Army and fill out the remainder of his term as a civilian figure-head for a military regime.”

Arevalo was the democratically elected president of Guatemala. Did he not have some sort of right to try and protect his government by ordering the arrest of Arana?

Sure George Bush would have had the right to order the arrest John Kerry if he had attempted a military coup before the last election. But as far as I can tell he did not do that. So your point is irrelevant.

You say the death of Arana provides evidence that Guatemala was not a “democracy”. Was Eisenhower’s ordering the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala anything to do with democracy? When I asked you this question before on the Arbenz thread you said that Eisenhower was in the right because he was protecting the interests of the United States. That says everything we need to know about your views on democracy.

I wonder if there are any other members of the Forum willing to defend Gratz's views on democracy?

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When his book “Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala 1952-1954” was published in 1999, Nick Cullather, wrote an introduction describing his experiences working in the CIA archives.

Cullather was one of several young historians (he had just completed his PhD) who had been brought in as a result of President Clinton’s decision to open up the CIA files. This was in response to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The KGB files were being released and as it was pointed out at the time, “if the Communist enemy was going public, how could the United States refuse.” Cullather adds “Americans expected not only a ‘peace dividend’ after the iron curtain fell, but a truth dividend as well.” (page viii)

Clinton appointed R. James Woolsey as director of the CIA. He promised a “warts and all” disclosure of all historical material and made covert operations the first priority. (page xii) However, other senior figures in the CIA made sure that this did not happen. When Clinton issued a new executive order on declassification, the CIA requested exemption for 106 million pages of pre-1975 documents, almost two-thirds of the total. (page xiv)

George C. Herring, a member of the CIA’s Historical Review Panel, complained that the Clinton program of declassification had been turned into “a brilliant public relations snow job” and a “carefully nurtured myth” of openness. (page xiv)

Clinton’s attempt at declassifying documents was brought to an end by George Tenet. He told a Senate confirmation committee that he intended to “hold the reviews of these covert actions in abeyance for the time being”. He added: “I would turn our gaze from the past, it is dangerous, frankly to keep looking over our shoulders.”

When Cullather’s account was finally declassified, it was heavily redacted. It is interesting what the CIA removed. For example, on page 16 Cullather wrote: “Thomas G. Corcoran was the company’s (United Fruit) main conduit to the sources of power. Described by Fortune (magazine) as a “purveyor of concentrated influence,” Concoran had a network of well-placed friends in business and government.” The next section, four lines long, where Cullather names these “well-placed friends” has been completely removed.

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  • 1 year later...
When his book "Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala 1952-1954" was published in 1999, Nick Cullather, wrote an introduction describing his experiences working in the CIA archives.

Cullather was one of several young historians (he had just completed his PhD) who had been brought in as a result of President Clinton's decision to open up the CIA files. This was in response to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The KGB files were being released and as it was pointed out at the time, "if the Communist enemy was going public, how could the United States refuse." Cullather adds "Americans expected not only a 'peace dividend' after the iron curtain fell, but a truth dividend as well." (page viii)

Clinton appointed R. James Woolsey as director of the CIA. He promised a "warts and all" disclosure of all historical material and made covert operations the first priority. (page xii) However, other senior figures in the CIA made sure that this did not happen. When Clinton issued a new executive order on declassification, the CIA requested exemption for 106 million pages of pre-1975 documents, almost two-thirds of the total. (page xiv)

George C. Herring, a member of the CIA's Historical Review Panel, complained that the Clinton program of declassification had been turned into "a brilliant public relations snow job" and a "carefully nurtured myth" of openness. (page xiv)

Clinton's attempt at declassifying documents was brought to an end by George Tenet. He told a Senate confirmation committee that he intended to "hold the reviews of these covert actions in abeyance for the time being". He added: "I would turn our gaze from the past, it is dangerous, frankly to keep looking over our shoulders."

When Cullather's account was finally declassified, it was heavily redacted. It is interesting what the CIA removed. For example, on page 16 Cullather wrote: "Thomas G. Corcoran was the company's (United Fruit) main conduit to the sources of power. Described by Fortune (magazine) as a "purveyor of concentrated influence," Concoran had a network of well-placed friends in business and government." The next section, four lines long, where Cullather names these "well-placed friends" has been completely removed.

Given the current state of affairs, I thought I would revive this thread before I contribute to it.

Bill Kelly

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