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.

Further Interest Declared: several longtime friends of mine work at the Archive, including Peter Kornbluh, Kate Doyle, and Tom Blanton, the director.

Anyone who gives a damn about honesty in history and openness in government ought to cheer the Archive. To celebrate its birthday, the organization has gathered statistics about its accomplishments. It has filed 32,000 FOIA and declassification requests with over 200 offices and agencies of the US government; it has obtained the release of 7 million pages of once-secret documents; its staff and fellows have written 46 books; it has participated in 39 major lawsuits, one of which resulted in the preservation of 40 million emails from the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations. And the Archive this week put out a greatest hits list of 20 big-secret government records it has obtained in the past two decades. It’s an impressive list that includes

* Hundreds of photos of flag-draped coffins containing the remains of US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which the Pentagon fought to keep secret.

* The January 25, 2001 memo that terrorism czar Richard Clarke sent to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, warning that top Bush administration officials needed to immediately come up with a plan for dealing with al Qaeda.

* The briefing notes for Donald Rumsfeld’s 1984 meeting with Saddam Hussein, when Rumsfeld, acting as an envoy for the Reagan administration, was to tell Saddam that the Reagan administration’s public criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons would not interfere with Reagan’s effort to forge a closer relationship with Saddam.

* An August 6, 1986 entry from Oliver North’s notebook that indicated North had met with then-Vice President George Bush in the midst of the Iran-contra affair.

* The log book of a US Navy destroyer that revealed that on October 27, 1962–in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis–this ship dropped depth charges off the Cuban coast and almost hit the hull of a Soviet submarine carrying a nuclear warhead. The crew of the sub, believing war was at hand, considered firing the nuclear weapon but did not.

* Documents from CIA and FBI files that showed that Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban militant who has sought US asylum, was at two planning meetings for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people.

* Guatemalan army intelligence documents and US intelligence documents that indicated that the CIA was assisting the Guatemalan military in the 1980s as that military was killing thousands of civilians.

* Documents that revealed that Henry Kissinger, as secretary of state in 1976, supported the Argentine military dictatorship’s crackdown of dissent that led to the deaths of tens of thousands.

* The CIA inspector general’s scathing review of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, which was kept secret for nearly four decades and which blasted CIA secret operations as “ludicrous or tragic or both.”

* A 1967 CIA memo that revealed that the CIA had tried to implant listening devices in cats and train them to approach targets. The memo noted that the “work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit on the personnel who guided it,” but that “the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation forces us to conclude that for our…purposes, it would not be practical.” The first wired and trained cat had been released near a park and ordered to eavesdrop on two men sitting on a bench. On its way to the target, the cat was run over by a taxi.


Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the latest in the CIA leak scandal, Condi and torture, the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and other in-the-news matters.


Without the National Security Archive much of the secret history of the United States–and other nations–would remain a secret. Is this a puff piece? Certainly. There is no better institution in Washington than the Archive. The work it does is actually something a government could and should do. It’s not too hard to imagine a federal openness advocate who would muscle individual federal agencies to release information about past and present activities. But governments tend to be rather reluctant to reveal to the public–the people they ostensibly serve–inconvenient and troubling secrets on their own. Consequently, a bunch of smart people dedicated to the public interest have been gainfully employed for two decades. The public here and abroad knows more about key historical episodes than it would otherwise thanks to the their toils. It is a pity there is such a critical need for the National Security Archive; it is a blessing for journalists, historians and citizens that the Archive exists.