Thursday, December 12, 2013

FRUS: Declassifying the Guatemala Invasion

As I've mentioned multiple times over the years, I am a very big fan of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, which I find endlessly fascinating. Via the State Department Historian's Twitter feed, here is a 1981 document trying to figure out how to compile the American Republics, 1952-1954 volume. The problem is that this covers the invasion of Guatemala and the CIA wasn't willing to declassify a lot of it and the NSC didn't want some of it released. The Office of the Historian wasn't too happy.

In any declassification controversy, there is a point at which HO must opt to cut its losses, but I regard the decision to go forward with publication in this case as premature for the following reasons:
  • it puts the onus for failure to publish the record of, or to account for, a well-known covert episode squarely on the Department of State and the Office of the Historian, thereby seriously eroding the credibility of the series;
  • it radically changes the nature of HO's mission, in spite of its current mandate, without the sanction of higher levels in the Department of State or the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation;
  • it imposes a form of self-censorship on the series, and suggests that there is compelling logic to move the threshold of self-censorship from the declassification to the collection phase of the production process;
  • it eliminates the possibility of testing the CIA's claim that there is a distinction between policy and operations, and that the former may be releasable;
  • it forecloses an appeal to the NSC on deletions of materials appearing almost verbatim in previously published volumes, thereby encouraging the NSC to widen this practice;
  • it establishes a strong negative precedent for other Foreign Relations volumes in progress, thereby jeopardizing a substantial aggregate of documentation; and,
  • it weakens the position of the Department of State in dealing with the anticipated negative reaction of the consuming public.

Good for them! In the short term, though, the State Department lost. As the Cold War ended that began to change. In 2003, an entire volume was dedicated to Guatemala, with the following press release:

The operation to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954, a decisive event in U.S. relations with Latin America early in the cold war, is the topic of a retrospective volume of the Department of State's official documentary history, Foreign Relations of the United States, released on May 15, 2003. As part of a sub-series of the Foreign Relations series that documents the foreign policy of Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration, this retrospective volume supplements the 1983 publication of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Volume IV, American Republics. The 1983 volume—which covered multilateral and bilateral relations with 20 American republics—provided an incomplete history of U.S. relations with Guatemala by not documenting the U.S. Government-approved role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the ouster of Arbenz. 
Partly in response to this omission, Congress passed legislation in 1991, which the President signed, mandating that the Foreign Relations series “shall be a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity” and requiring U.S. Government departments and agencies to provide Department of State historians with “full and complete access to the records pertinent to United States foreign policy decisions and actions.” 
In the early 1990s, Directors of Central Intelligence officially acknowledged 11 covert actions during the early cold war years, including the one in Guatemala. At the same time, Department of State historians gained fuller access to the CIA's files on Guatemala. The new volume is a product of this improved access. The Central Intelligence Agency has reviewed the volume for declassification, in coordination with its review of a larger collection of documents on the Guatemalan operation that it is releasing to the public at the National Archives.

One of the really ridiculous parts of this is that the CIA's role was very well known anyway. Already by the early 1980s there was a lot of solid scholarly work on the topic. Keeping information out of the public eye had nothing to do with national interest and everything to do with keeping extremely unsavory CIA activities out of the official record as much as possible.


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