The Declassified Record
By Noam Chomsky at Aug 19, 2006
Z Sustainer: I'm not really clear about what you mean when you refer to the "declassified record." Whatever it is that you're referring to is obviously an unbelievably valuable resource. Again and again, I've seen you expose amazing and very enlightening facts, citing this "declassified record." I realize it's not a single source (e.g., all memoranda from any secretary of state to any president). I have no idea how many documents are classified by the U.S. government in an average year, but I'm guessing that it would take a single person more than a lifetime to read even one year's worth. It can't be that you just read everything that the federal government ever declassifies. How do you know what to read? How do journalists, academics, etc. know what to ask for in FOIA requests, when they (as a matter of logic) don't what's in a specific document or even that it exists? Does everything just get declassified after a generation or two? What about the Bush administration's (illegitimately?) reclassifying documents?
Noam Chomsky: There is an official declassification procedure, run by historians in connection with the State Department. They review documents of all government agencies that allow it (the CIA, for example, often does not), and decide which ones to release. Theoretically, it's supposed to be after 30 years. In practice, a bit longer. The record is called Foreign Relations of the United States. It's available in any good research library (like universities), and by now a lot is online.
In addition, the government regularly declassifies documents. There is, at least used to be, a regular publication listing declassified documents.
One can also obtain documents through the Freedom of Information Act, or by research in presidential libraries and other archival sources. That's a lot of work
Administrations differ in what they are willing to release. The so-called "conservatives," more accurately statist reactionaries, are the worst. The Reagan administration caused a major scandal by refusing to release, perhaps destroying, documents on the overthrow of the governments of Iran and Guatemala in the early 50s. That actually led to the resignation of the (quite conservative) State Department historians, and blasts in the professional journals and sometimes even the press. I think the Bush administration may be the first to "reclassify" documents, and have been charged (I haven't checked carefully) with refusing to release documents of the Johnson years.
99% of it is quite boring, but there are nuggets. How do you know what to read and look for? It's rather like asking a chemist what to look for in the thousands of technical papers that pour out, or of the innumerable experiments that can be done? We're all overwhelmed by a deluge of data, and can find out what's important only by developing a framework of insight and understanding, whether it's in the hard sciences or daily life. There aren't any special tricks.
Z Sustainer: I'd like it if you could also answer me more broadly as well, not just restricted to the "declassified record." Where do you find out about, for example, and this is only an example, the details about diplomatic proposals that were made between the U.S. and the Milosevic government, not now but at the time the crisis was actually going on?
Noam Chomsky: What I reported was public information, right at the time, which the press refused to report, e.g., about the Serbian proposals for diplomatic settlement on the eve of the bombing, but a lot more. There's plenty available in the public record, but one has to search to find it.
Z Sustainer: I understand that you are heavily plugged into a network of like-minded academics, activists and journalists. I'm not referring to that (mostly). I'm talking about primary sources that disclose facts embarrassing to the establishment, actually admitted to on paper by the establishment; the best example I know of is the set of early National Security Council memoranda.
Noam Chomsky: It's true that over the years one develops personal contacts, but no need to exaggerate it. The network I'm plugged into overlaps extensively with what you can read on Znet. The early NSC memoranda were declassified, usually after something like the 30-year gap. But they are not studied much, even in scholarship often, and they rarely make it to the general public. Just to give an example, one of the most important questions about the post-war period is the record of documents concerning China. They're public up through the 60s, for the most part, but the first really serious book about the "NSC culture" as revealed in the documents is just coming out, a fascinating study by James Peck, a fine China scholar, called Washington's China.
Z Sustainer: Is all of this stuff available in any decent university library in the U.S.?
Noam Chomsky: The most important parts, or they can be obtained by interlibrary loan or by now, on the internet.