Score a Point for Openness

June 17, 2017–Every so often the public gets to crow about something that is a real advance for transparency and openness in government. This is especially welcome during these days when plots, counterplots, and maneuvers swirl around us relying upon secrecy. Today’s point concerns the State Department documentary records series called the Foreign Relations of the United States. This series of bound volumes and, more recently, electronic versions, constitutes the official record of American diplomacy. You can find sets of it at good libraries. Multiple volumes focus on each region of the world, and on some global topics, for each American president. Kudos to the State Department Historian, his staff, the Historical Advisory Panel, and declassification authorities at the State Department and the CIA.

This story concerns President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Iran. Back in the first year of Ike’s presidency (1953), he ordered a CIA covert operation that overthrew the legally-installed prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1989 the State Department published a FRUS volume that pretended there was no CIA role in the fall of the Iranian leader–a populist by the way. By that time, however, the spooks’ covert operation had become pretty widely known–for example I had written of it at some length in my book, first published in 1986, called Presidents’ Secret Warsand the FRUS volume was met by derision.

A panel of historians advises the State Department on maintaining the FRUS as our authoritative record. The panel not only guffawed at the volume, it told the Historical Office to redo its sums and produce a new FRUS volume properly recounting the story. When State demurred, the historians lobbied Congress, with the eventual result that today it is a matter of statute that the FRUS series must reflect the activities of all U.S. agencies and must be truly “authoritative,” starting with a new Iran 1953 volume.

Eventually the Iran volume would be supplemented by one, just as long, which contained the hidden history. That volume went into declassification review in the late 1990s. There it sat. And sat. And sat. And sat. Mind you, this was at a time when President Bill Clinton had instituted secrecy rules providing that, with narrow exceptions, all documents older that 25 years should immediately be declassified. Iran 1953 was already past that. As the FRUS volume languished, an internal history of the CIA operation leaked to the public. Later a similar account was declassified. From time to time historians, including my colleague Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive, advocated for release of the FRUS. The State Department actually did release two other FRUS volumes on CIA covert operations–on Guatemala in 1954 and on the Congo in the 1960, plus a dual-volume on Cuba which covered the Bay of Pigs and more–while the Iran records sat in the secret vault. Until two days ago, June 15, 2017. The Iran volume has finally emerged!

A look at the final product shows that there’s work still to be done. The FRUS volume has 10 CIA documents that were wholly deleted, 38 which contain deletions of more than a paragraph, and 80 that have lesser redactions. This amounts to a large percentage of the material that covers the actual CIA coup. More to the point, it includes the operative portions of the project planning papers, the detail of CIA monthly reports, and much more. The new FRUS volume is a great advance over what we had before, but the redactions make it plain the CIA believes it can still live in a world of secrecy.

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