Still Secret After All These Years

By Michael Dobbs
Sunday, March 12, 2006; B02

Government secrecy will not be an issue, I told myself optimistically as
I began to research a history of the Cuban missile crisis.

After all, the classic showdown of the Cold War occurred more than four
decades ago, well outside the 25-year period established by the
administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for the
automatic release of everything but the most sensitive government
documents. The Soviet Union has been consigned to the ash heap of
history, and '60s-era defense technologies, such as the U-2 spy plane,
are no longer considered secret.

How wrong I was.

It turns out that most government documents on the missile crisis --
including the principal Pentagon and State Department records
collections -- are still classified. Hundreds of documents released to
researchers a decade ago have since been withdrawn as part of a
controversial -- itself secret -- reclassification program. And the
backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests to the National Archives
has grown to two, three or even five years.

Six months traveling across the country in pursuit of missile crisis
records -- from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston to the National
Archives in College Park to the Air Force Historical Research Agency in
Montgomery, Ala. -- spawns conflicting impressions. On the one hand,
these institutions are part of a national treasure trove of archival
riches. On the other, the system of declassifying government information
has become so chaotic in recent years that it is difficult for
outsiders, and even many insiders, to understand the logic behind it.

Thanks to the White House tapes declassified in 1996, I have
eavesdropped on intimate conversations between President Kennedy and his
aides as they struggled to respond to the deployment of Soviet rockets
less than 100 miles from Key West. I have perused top-secret signals
intelligence released by the National Security Agency, and page after
page of U.S. invasion plans for Cuba, down to the gradient of the
landing beaches and the Cuban "most wanted" list.

On the other hand, Air Force records describing the inadvertent
penetration of Soviet air space by a U-2 at the very peak of the crisis
are still secret. The files of former Kennedy military adviser Maxwell
Taylor are full of withdrawal slips marked "Access restricted." An
archival turf war between competing agencies has blocked access to the
records of the State Department intelligence office.

The extent of the reclassification program only became clear late last
month after a historian noticed that dozens of documents that he had
previously copied from the National Archives had mysteriously
disappeared from State Department boxes. The withdrawn records included
several documents that had already been published in official government
histories, such as a 1948 CIA memo on using balloons to drop propaganda
leaflets over Communist countries.

While the reclassification drive is intensely irritating to historians,
an even bigger problem is the ripple effect such efforts have had on
declassification. The routine declassification of government records has
ground to a virtual standstill over the past few years because of the
diversion of resources to reexamining previously released records.
Documents that would have been released routinely a decade ago are
trapped in a bureaucratic twilight zone.

A good example of this phenomenon are the thousands of pages of
Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense records on the missile
crisis transferred to the National Archives more than five years ago,
but currently stored in confidential stacks. Archives officials told me
that they will probably be able to release part of that collection in
the next few months, but the bulk must go through an elaborate
interagency screening process that could take several years.

It is instructive to compare the situation of Cuban missile crisis
records with that of World War II records. The last great wartime secret
-- the existence of the Enigma code-breaking machine -- was officially
revealed in 1974, 29 years after the end of the war. By 1990, 45 years
after the victory over Nazi Germany, the wartime records were almost
completely accessible. An equivalent amount of time has passed since the
missile crisis, but archival access is much more limited.

While the reclassification drive has accelerated under the Bush
administration, particularly since 9/11, it actually began under
Clinton. The initial impulse came from the Kyl-Lott amendment, passed by
Congress in 1998 in response to a scandal involving the alleged leaking
of nuclear secrets to China. The CIA and the Pentagon took advantage of
the new climate to look for information that had supposedly been
released without their consent, and demanded its withdrawal.

On March 2, the National Archives announced yet another initiative to
respond to the flurry of bad publicity about reclassification -- this
time to check whether documents have been improperly withdrawn from
circulation. While the initiative has been welcomed by historians, it
also carries dangers. A vast amount of energy, time and taxpayer money
is being wasted reviewing and re-reviewing the same documents.

If the missile crisis is any guide, the whole laborious process could be
greatly speeded up by better coordination between agencies, improved
data management, and what one frustrated National Archives records
officer terms the application of "a little common sense." Some agencies
-- the Air Force is a prime example -- lack an effective system for
tracking documents previously declassified under the Freedom of
Information Act.

By contrast, the CIA, which is often accused of dragging its feet, has
found a way to make declassified documents instantly available to all
researchers. The agency has a public database that includes day-by-day
intelligence analyses on the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba,
based on reconnaissance flights by U-2s and low-level planes.

Archival work is a little like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. If you
are patient enough, you can eventually make out the picture, even if
many of the pieces are missing. In the case of the missile crisis, I
have assembled enough of the puzzle to be confident that few, if any, of
the missing pieces contain national security information that could be
useful to an enemy -- the criterion established by both Bush and Clinton
for continuing to classify more than 25-year-old secrets.

So why, if the puzzle is largely resolved, am I -- and other researchers
-- making such a fuss? Because history is not just about the big
picture. It is also about the small stuff, thousands upon thousands of
individual acts of bravery and skill and, yes, foolishness. In order to
make sense of the anguished White House debates between Kennedy and his
advisers in October 1962, you need to understand how the Cold War was
actually fought, by the generals, the spies, the reconnaissance pilots.
It is the details that make history come alive -- and in far too many
cases those details are still being hidden from us.

Michael Dobbs is a Washington Post reporter on leave to write a book
about the Cuban missile crisis.

 2006 The Washington Post Company