Declassifying History

Did you know that in 1990 a U.S. psychological operation in Nicaragua used rock songs to “blast out” Manuel Noriega from refuge and into U.S. custody? Did you know the CIA wanted to include “novelty items such as ‘gusano libre’ pins, toy balloons … decals, stickers, etc.” in hot-air balloons to oust Fidel Castro? Did you know the Defense Department kept Farsi translations of “machine gun” and “we are brothers” classified as top secret for 12 years? And did you know that the Gelman Library has a seventh floor?

Wait, the library has a seventh floor?

Most students are unaware that everyday researchers and historians are cracking Soviet codes and declassifying intelligence secrets at the National Security Archive, located on the seventh floor of the Gelman Library.

Established in 1985, the NSA holds the world’s largest collection of declassified documents outside of the government. For the last nine years, this nongovernmental, nonprofit research institute has called Gelman home. It publishes declassified documents obtained primarily through the Freedom of Information Act, but some additional material comes from presidential libraries. These formerly top-secret documents cover everything from international affairs to foreign policy to human rights.

To actually declassify all of these documents and make them available to the public, however, is often a long process.

Thomas Blanton, director of the NSA, said the organization has filed for more than 28,000 requests over an 18-year period.

“We are the most prolific and successful nonprofit user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act,” Blanton said.

A document is requested through the FOIA from a government agency such as the State Department, which then searches for information pertaining to that document and excises information it can’t release. Once the document has been reviewed, it can be released as a declassified publication.

“Sometimes the whole process can take years,” NSA administrator Sue Bechtel said.

Blanton said the NSA is constantly trying to meet its many goals.

“The main goals we have are to challenge excessive government secrecy, to enrich the public policy debate with primary sources in place of anonymous sources, to improve scholarship and journalism by opening otherwise secret documentation, and to contribute to the worldwide struggle for government accountability and transparency,” Blanton said in an e-mail.

But obtaining documents isn’t always easy; the government is often reluctant to hand them over, forcing the NSA to take the matter to court.

“We have filed more than 30 lawsuits over the years, most of them successful in the sense that the lawsuits forced the government to release documents that it originally had refused to do,” Blanton said.

The NSA has three types of collections available for public access.

“We have a Web site with most of the documents on it, a published collection on microfiche and on a digital system, and all the unpublished documents are in boxes in the reading room,” Bechtel said.

The NSA’s reading room, surrounded by stacks of boxes with unpublished documents, is open for the public to conduct research.

“Although we prefer students make an appointment beforehand, just in case the reading room is full, they can always just come up and check,” Bechtel said.

She also advised making appointments because certain information must be delivered several days in advance.

But making a trip up to the seventh floor isn’t the only way students can access material from the NSA. A digital system to access its documents, created in 1998, is available through any of Gelman’s computer labs.

Analysts at the NSA usually define projects they want to work on and then collect and publish documents relevant to those projects, Bechtel explained.

“The requests (for documents) are done systematically, and we have the time to wait around for a few years, if necessary, to get documents,” Bechtel said.

The NSA also hired students as unpaid interns, who work with analysts or research assistants on specific projects. Such projects include building chronology of a certain time period and maintaining and conducting further research on documents at the National Archives or the Library of Congress.

“We usually have about five to six interns in the fall and spring. In the summer, we usually get anywhere from 10 to 15 interns from all over the area,” Bechtel said.

Students in Professor Mark Croatti’s “Introduction to Comparative Politics” political science class participate in a “mini internship” with the organization, during which they work 20 hours over the course of a semester, supplemented by a four- to six-page summary of their work.

Croatti noted that the internship is a way for students to fulfill the course’s research requirement.

“Not too many choose it because of the time commitment, but it’s available if they are interested, and those that do find it very rewarding,” Croatti said.

Student intern Kirstin Sandquist is conducting research work with senior analyst Peter Kornbluh, whose focus is on Latin America.

“(I am) compiling information, searching news articles and writing a research memo on a book, both of which, I understand, Peter will be using to write articles,” Sandquist said. “I was surprised that I was given such large responsibility as a temporary intern, but I’m very glad that I’m being taken seriously, and find my work quite interesting.”

Another advantage of the internship is researching “a zone of the world about which I knew very little up to this point,” Sandquist added.

The internship requirement for Croatti’s class was only part of the reason Sandquist decided to intern with the NSA.

“My other reason for choosing to apply to the Archive was because the idea of learning about foreign policy through declassified documents – that is, getting into it instead of studying it from a textbook – really appealed to me,” she said.

Interns, researchers and analysts alike have a part in achieving the NSA’s goals. Although it deals with the past, the organization has plans for the future.

“We hope to get released documents like the intelligence briefings for President Bush before 9/11 and before the war in Iraq,” Blanton said.

But the NSA already has volumes of information waiting for the public consumption.

“We just want to show the public what’s already out there,” Bechtel said.

The NSA can be accessed online at http://www.nsarchive.org.

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