National Security Archive: On the paper trail

Why do governments keep records of their illegal actions? Why do people write down what they know to be wrong? The National Security Archive is out to find out.

“Humans have to have some sort of rationalization, justification, especially if it amounts to murder,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a research institute and library located on the seventh floor of Gelman Library. “Writing it down is the only way they can keep doing it . writing it down allows them to make peace with evil.

Since its inception in 1985, the archive has acquired and published hundreds of paper documenting corruption and villainy, both in the U.S., and abroad. In 1999 they published the Guatemala Death Squad Diary, and in 2001 they published a memo for Condoleezza Rice from Richard Clarke, warning of the threat of Al-Qaida.

One recent finding, known as the “Family Jewels,” is a collection of papers documenting actions of the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s. The papers were released to the NSA in June, 15 years after they requested the documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

“Unless somebody pushes, the documents just stay secret – so we push,” Blanton said.

Blanton thinks the CIA finally released the documents to show they were making a break from the past, although that plan backfired as people only saw that current issues, like wiretapping, were also problematic years ago. The documents represented the oldest outstanding FOIA request.

“It seems like the spy agencies do the same thing over and over,” he said. “In the name of national security, they really push the envelope, and they break the law.

Students can access the archives online through the Gelman research system, or they can visit Gelman’s seventh floor to see the original documents.

Catherine Nielsen, the Freedom of Information coordinator for the NSA, received a master’s degree from the Elliott School. While a student she worked for the NSA as first an intern and then a research assistant.

Although much of what the NSA digs up is 30 or 40 years old, Nielsen said it is still relevant to the public.

“It becomes news because it’s a different spin on what happened,” she said.

She continued, “When you read what the news media reports or a historian writes, you always look at it through a filtered lens.”

The work of the NSA is especially relevant to people living in societies that are much more closed than American society.

Human rights activists from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa come to the NSA to pick up documents obtained through FOIA that concern human rights abuses in their countries. The documents are then often used as evidence in trials to prosecute criminals.

Nielsen also hosts foreign journalists, activists and government officials at the NSA who are interested in reforming their own Freedom of Information acts.

Kristin Adair, staff counsel for the NSA, received a master’s degree from the Elliott School, while working as a research assistant for the Agency.

Adair said primary documents will be more valuable than just hearing what governments say when trying to understand what led up to the Iraq war.

“The documents speak for themselves. We get behind the spin that officials put on the documents,” she said. “That document doesn’t lie.”

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