Last week it was reported that the FBI is attempting to obtain the private documents of Jack Anderson, a recently deceased Washington journalist whose files GW is in the process of acquiring for archival purposes. Anderson covered scandals from the CIA plan to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro to the Watergate debacle, and the FBI claims that his papers may contain classified information.
FBI agents have already contacted University employees and members of Anderson’s family to try to review and potentially reclassify parts of the collection. GW’s proximity to the conflict and responsibility to preserve the free flow of scholarly information and the integrity of academic archives places an onus on the University to ensure that access to these files is not relinquished without a big fight.
Research scholars have said that the government’s attempt to acquire private files is unprecedented, and the FBI’s interest in these documents should raise alarms in academia and the public as a whole. This maneuver is indicative of a trend toward increased secrecy under the Bush administration, including a limited flow of information to the press, attacks on privacy due to the USA PATRIOT Act and the reclassification of documents previously made public.
In the case of Anderson’s files, the government is attempting to restrict access to historical data rather than targeting perceived threats to current national issues. This action could set a dangerous precedent. The mission of any academic archive is to preserve the past, allowing for an examination of history to facilitate educated analysis for future policy. Reclassifying historical documents might remove the possibility for retrospective analysis and degrade open debate on policy issues.
Some documents should be classified in the interest of national security. Going after private records from decades ago immediately after the owner’s death, however, is a bastardization of the government’s national security objective. In this case, it is incumbent upon the FBI to clearly articulate why private documents mainly concerning decades-old activities are targets for potential classification.
While Anderson’s family has not yet formally transferred the late journalist’s documents to GW, the University should still take an aggressive stance against the government’s current efforts. University Librarian Jack Siggins and journalism professor Mark Feldstein have expressed a reluctance to cooperate with the FBI, but administrators have largely left the issue to the family.
As a caretaker of academic freedom and American liberties, the University should lead the charge with the Anderson family to ensure that these private documents are preserved for public use. GW, with its extensive legal resources, may be the most capable party to fight this battle, which has ramifications for historians, academics and citizens all over this country.
Just as the FBI’s intrusions into these documents would set a dangerous precedent for government transparency, it would also have untold ramifications for academic document collections, such as GW’s National Security Archive. If agents are able to pick the Anderson files dry, there is nothing to stop future acquisition of material already within the University’s possession. The security archive, run by a non-profit organization that rents space in Gelman Library, is a premier academic resource, and it could be left in shambles in the near future if GW does not take action against the possible seizure of Anderson’s files.
Thus, it is in administrators’ best interests to exhaust every legal avenue before letting the FBI review the Anderson files. Such a stand against academic oppression and against excessive government secrecy as a whole would allow GW to live up to the ideals and values of its namesake.