National Security Archive, Washington DC

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A review of the National Security Archive, Washington DC, United States of America.

On January 19, 1989, a lawsuit was filed against the Executive Office of the President of the United States and the National Security Council, seeking the preservation of electronic messages created during the Reagan administration through IBM PROFS (Professional Office System). The emails saved in backup tapes included messages from Oliver North concerning the Iran-Contra scandal, among other emails from the NSC. The electronic messages were successfully preserved.

One of the plaintiffs was the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute founded in 1985 by journalists and scholars (see the Archive’s history here). The Archive houses and makes available declassified US government records, mostly obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive is located at the Gelman Library at George Washington University in Washington DC. It is an excellent resource for those interested in researching US foreign policy. The documentation is not limited to their holdings. Staff and fellows from the Archive have published more than 60 books. The Archive also provides access to selected documents online through Electronic Briefing Books. Available through the Archive’s website, the EBB provides digitized documents on a particular event or topic. Each briefing book includes a summary of the event and how the documents released are related to it. Each document is accompanied by its own summary. The Archive also provides information about important news and information related to its work in the blog “UNREDACTED: The National Security Archive, Unedited and Uncensored.” The Archive has a Digital National Security Archive, a subscription database and online catalog of digitized collections (over 90,000 documents). Guides for researchers are available here.

The Archive was founded at a moment when access to government information was becoming more difficult. In an interview for the Government Publications Review, Scott Armstrong declared that the founders of the Archive “saw the journalistic, scholarly, and public interest communities, and even the Congress, less and less able to cope with such executive manipulations of information” (Bruce Morton and Steven D. Zink, “Preserving the Institutional Memory, An Interview with Scott Armstrong, Executive Director of the National Security Archive,” Government Publications Review 16 (1989): 333). They envisioned the National Security Archive as an organization that would fight the government strategy of prolonging the release of information.

The work of the National Security Archive goes beyond collecting and disseminating declassified records, and this is the area I would like to emphasize, particularly because it underscores the role of archives in society. In other words, archives are more than repositories of historical documents; they are active players in important social issues such as accountability, transparency and human rights. The National Security Archive has been an active advocate of open government in the United States and abroad. Nationally, the NSA has participated in congressional hearings and has filed Freedom of Information lawsuits against the US government. Internationally, the NSA is part of freedominfo.org, a global network of pro-open government advocacy groups.

The National Security Archive has been an active player in Latin America, particularly in the ongoing efforts to achieve accountability with regard to the traumatic legacy of authoritarianism and civil wars that affected most of the region from the 1960s to the 1990s. The Archive has assisted most of the region’s truth commissions, providing documents from their holdings and assisting with the request of documents from US government agencies. The organization also provided technological assistance to the Documentation Center and Archive for the Defense of Human Rights, a division of the Justice Department in Paraguay, which is the custodian of the Archive of Terror. The organization has collaborated with the Historical Archives of the Guatemalan National Police, discovered in July 2005. The Archive has also provided documents and analysis to criminal investigations of human rights abuses, and its staff has served as expert witnesses at a number of trials. This includes the trial of Alberto Fujimori in Peru and trials in Argentina. The work of the National Security Archive in Latin America was the focus of the research for my doctoral dissertation, entitled Archives as Agents of Accountability and Justice: An Examination of the National Security Archive in the Context of Transitional Justice in Latin America (University of Pittsburgh, 2012). I used the NSA as a case study to analyze the impact of archives in transitional justice mechanisms in Latin America. This included the work of the NSA in Guatemala.

While most of my data was from court decision documents, news and reports, I was able to identify and study declassified U.S. document records housed at the National Security Archive. I selected documents from the Electronic Briefing Books and the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA). Declassified documents about Guatemala that I studied are part of the DNSA’s collection titled “Death Squads, Guerrilla War, Covert Operations, and Genocide: Guatemala and the United States, 1954-1999.” This collection of over 2,000 declassified documents describes the political developments during that period, including evidence about US policy in Guatemala and its assistance to the counterinsurgency campaign against the guerrilla groups during the civil war. The collection is also part of the Guatemala Documentation Project, a NSA initiative directed by Kate Doyle, which began requesting the declassification of documents between 1994 and 1995.

Early on in my research I visited the National Security Archive to look at declassified documents that are not available online. The reading room is small, and therefore researchers need to make an appointment (see Guide for Researchers). Also, because most of the collections are in outside storage, requests need to be made at least two days in advance. Nevertheless, it is important to contact the staff at the Archive and explain your topic of interest, so they will be able to help you identify the materials that would be of interest for your research. The staff at the Archive is very welcoming and friendly, and their assistance was of great help in identifying the cases I studied. The reading room is open from 10am to 5.30pm on weekdays.

In sum, the role played by the National Security Archive has gone beyond being an archival institution that provides access to declassified government records. The Archive has become part of the network of organizations that promote the right to know and that seek accountability for past human rights abuses. Scott Armstrong envisioned the National Security Archive as a central repository where researchers could consult already declassified documents without having to file new FOIA requests. The availability of these documents in one repository has in turn been of great assistance to scholars, human rights groups and students, among other users.

Joel A. Blanco-Rivera
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
Simmons College
blancoj@simmons.edu

Image: The National Security Archive. Photograph by Anya Melyakova, The GW Hatchet.

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