Washington is a city of secrets. Some old; some new. There are few institutions devoted to the mission of prying these secrets from the filing cabinets of assorted government agencies. Some media outfits periodically pick the locks and obtain scoops. Journalists occasionally receive well- or not-so-well-intentioned leaks about past or present official misdeeds. Once in a while–less so these days–a congressional investigation or a commission unearths long-buried truths about government-gone-bad. But when it comes to consistently forcing important secrets out of the US government no journalist or investigator rivals the National Security Archive, a nonprofit outfit based at George Washington University.
Why gush about it now? Today the Archive is celebrating its 20th anniversary. In 1985 journalists Scott Armstrong and Raymond Bonner. Representative Jim Moody, Ruth Chojnacki, a congressional aide, Morton Halperin, the head of the ACLU office in Washington, and Stephen Paschke, the chief financial officer of the Fund for Peace, founded the organization. At first it was, in a way, a dumping ground for journalists and scholars who had amassed large files on subjects related to national security and foreign policy. Unlike those reporters and scholars who are overly possessive of their records, these folks wanted to make their material available to others. (And who needs all those boxes in their basements?) But the National Security Archive grew into more than a depository. It became a force for openness–first in the United States, then throughout the world. Its researchers relentlessly filed Freedom of Information Act requests–and haggled with various government agencies–to obtain crucial records of historic and contemporary significance. In 1990, a lawsuit it filed jointly with Public Citizen won the release of Oliver North’s Iran-contra notebooks. The Archive pressured the US government to release tens of thousands of pages on the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. It forced Henry Kissinger to relinquish control of 33,000 pages of public records he walked off with when he left the government. And as democracy spread to Eastern Europe and Russia (well, kind of) in the 1990s, the National Security Archive worked with the new governments in these countries to modernize their archives and to bring transparency to their history.
Before gushing further, let me issue this Interest Declared: When writing my book on the CIA, Blond Ghost, in the early 1990s, the Archive was quite helpful. It had collected reams of material on the CIA campaign against Cuba of the early 1960s that was rather important for my project. And I fondly (in a perverse way) recall spending weeks at the Archive poring over a massive computer printout of all the Freedom of Information Act requests the CIA had fulfilled in previous years. The Archive had pressured the CIA to release this information, and the CIA, in response, handed it a printout that listed the data in random order. Not by date. Not by subject. Not by name of requester. In other words, the CIA had organized the information in the least usable form. We figured that the CIA must have programmed a computer to achieve this, for, certainly, the CIA did not maintain its records in such a haphazard fashion. (At least, we hoped so.) The National Security Archive pressed the CIA to turn over the data in an electronic version that could be searchable. (Want to know what documents related to Vietnam the CIA had released? Type in “Vietnam” and hit “Enter.”) But the CIA had said no. That meant I had to look at this printout, which covered thousands of requests, line by line. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but my eyes took a pounding. Subsequently–too late for me–the Archive succeeded in forcing the CIA to hand over this information on computer tapes.