U.S. National Archives Web Site Uploads Hundreds of Thousands of Diplomatic Cables from 1977
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 463
March 27, 2014
Edited by William Burr
Washington, DC, March 27, 2014 – In February 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted 300,000 State Department telegrams from 1977 — the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration — on its Access to Archival Databases system. This posting is another step in carrying out the commitment that NARA and the State Department have made to putting on-line major State Department document databases and indexes as they are declassified. The 1977 telegrams cover the gamut of issues of the day: human rights on both sides of the Cold War line, U.S.-Soviet relations, China, NATO issues, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Crisis, African affairs, a variety of diplomatic and security relationships around the world from Latin American to Southeast Asia, and issues of growing concern, such as women in development. The last release of on-line State Department material — telegrams and other records for 1976 — was in January 2010. Meeting the requirements of the Privacy Act, budgetary problems, and a complex declassification process prolonged the review and release of the 1977 material.
NARA’s mass posting of State Department telegrams began in 2006 when it uploaded nearly 320,000 declassified telegrams from 1973 and 1974. During the following years, NARA posted hundreds of thousands of telegrams from 1975 and 1976, bringing the total to nearly a million. The Access to Archival Databases (AAD) search engine permits searches for documents on a year-to-year basis, but in 2012 Wikileaks usefully repackaged the telegram databases by aggregating them, making it possible to search through all of telegrams at once.
The National Archives has not publicized this or previous diplomatic telegram releases so the National Security Archive is stepping in to the breach to alert researchers and to offer some interesting examples of the new material. Some key documents are already available in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States historical series, but there is more material than the FRUSeditors can use on many topics. A stroll through the AAD search engine produces absorbing results. Among the highlights from the search conducted by the editor:
- During Jimmy Carter’s first year, U.S. officials in Moscow and Washington wondered about Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s state of health and its implications for Moscow-Washington relations, which were already complicated by disagreements over strategic arms control and human rights policy. In an exchange of telegrams State Department intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow argued over the former’s view that Brezhnev’s health problems meant that he was “no longer in command of all aspects of Soviet policy.” For the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), even if Brezhnev was losing control, he could still be a channel of communication, not unlike Mao Zedong’s declining years where “we had more success with Mao’s slobbering and shambling through critical meetings with U.S. representatives …than we have had since Mao’s passing.” Disagreeing with that assessment, U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon acknowledged that Brezhnev “suffers from a variety of physical ailments” but he “is still in control.”
- When two senior U.S. officials met with South Korean dictator General Park Chung Hee in 1977 to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they brought up human rights problems. The detention of dissidents arrested at Myeongdong Cathedral in 1976 was one issue that concerned the White House but Park was reluctant to take a lenient approach because it would “encourage defendants to violate Korean law again.”
- According to a report from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand on the situation in Cambodia and the status of organized resistance against the Khmer Rouge, two informants declared that “the fruit of Khmer Rouge rule might well be the extinction of the Cambodian race.” While the Khmer Rouge had continued “to eliminate anyone associated with the former regime,” the “greatest threat to life in Cambodia” was disease and famine. The recent rice harvest had been good but the regime was stockpiling and exporting the grain.
- A telegram on a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and an influential figure in the South African National Party, Cornelius (“Connie”) Petrus Mulder, who was “more liberal” but did not want to get “out in front of agreed policy on apartheid.” Young conveyed the message that the administration sought “progressive transformation of South Africa toward majority rule” and the discussion covered the range of regional issues as well as the Young’s argument about the possibility of reconciliation based on the “sharing of economic benefits.”
- In mid-1977, the Temple University biologist Niu Man-Chiang was visiting Beijing and met with Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping in the Wade-Giles transliteration), who, after very difficult years during the Cultural Revolution, was again holding top-level positions. Deng claimed that he “was in charge of two things: science and the military,” but kept bringing the discussion back to economic policy, especially solving the problem of “feeding a growing population,” for which he proposed restricting births and growing more food.
The release includes telegrams at many levels of classification, from “Unclassified” and “Official Use Only” to “Confidential” and “Secret.” Moreover, telegrams with a variety of handling restrictions are available, including “Limdis” [limited distribution], “Exdis” [exclusive distribution], and “Nodis” [no distribution except with permission], as well as “Noforn” [no foreign nationals] and “STADIS” [State Department distribution]. Unlike the previous telegram releases, the one for 1977 includes the “nodis” items and also the closely-held cables with the “Cherokee” distribution control, usually reserved for messages involving the secretary of state and senior White House officials. The Cherokee control originated during the 1960s, when Dean Rusk was Secretary of State. It was named after Cherokee County, Georgia, where he was born. Information confirmed in e-mail from David Langbart, National Archives, 28 March 2014.
The downside of the 1977 release is that nearly 60,000 telegrams have been exempted altogether, about 19.5 percent of the total for the year. This means that thousands of documents will remain classified for years; even if persistent researchers deluge NARA with requests they will take years to process under present budgetary limitations. Yet, 19.5 percent is close to the same exemption rate for the previous two years: 23 percent for 1976 and 19 percent for 1975. The specific reasons for the withdrawal of a given document are not given; according to information on the Web site, they are withdrawn variously for national security reasons, statutory exemptions, or privacy. No doubt specific statutory exemptions such as the CIA Act and the Atomic Energy Act play a role, which makes one wonder how many exempted documents concern such things as obsolete nuclear stockpile locations that are among the U.S. government’s dubious secrets. Moreover, given the endemic problem of over-classification at the Pentagon, it is possible that the Defense Department erroneously classified some information, for example, telegrams relating to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group.
The collection of telegrams is only a segment of the State Department record for that year; still to be declassified and processed for 1977 is the index to the P-reels, the microfilmed record of the non-telegram paper documentation. Moreover, top secret telegrams are not yet available for any year since 1973 and collections of “Nodis” telegrams from the mid-1970s remain unavailable. No doubt, NARA’s inadequate funding is an important cause of delay. OMB and Congress have kept NARA on an austerity budget for years; this is a serious problem, which directly damages the cause of greater openness for government records. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), the NARA budget has been declining since FY 2009, despite the agency’s ever-growing responsibility for billions of pages of paper and electronic records. Consistent with the policy of forced austerity, OMB has cut NARA’s budget for the next fiscal year by $10 million.
At the current rate it will be years before all the telegrams before all telegrams and other material for the 1970s, much less the 1980s, are on-line at AAD. While the State Department has moved forward in reviewing telegrams from the 1980s, its reviewers need to catch up with the “Nodis” and top secret central files from the mid-1970s and 1977 before they get too far ahead of themselves. As for the telegrams for 1978 and 1979, according to recent reports, they have been fully reviewed for declassification and physically transferred to NARA. When they will become available is not clear. They may have to go through a review for privacy information by NARA, for example, of material concerning visa applications. That was a major element contributing to the delay in the release of the 1977 telegrams. Such a review is justifiable, such as when social security numbers are at issue; certainly protecting private information deserves special care. Nevertheless, there is concern, even among NARA staffers, that the privacy review process may be becoming too extensive (e.g., excluding old mailing addresses). More needs to be learned about criteria used for the privacy review.
Note: As in the previous openings, some telegrams are missing for technological reasons. Over the years, when IT specialists migrated the telegram collections from one electronic medium to another some records were lost. Such missing records, of which there are over 3,800 for 1977 are indicated by this wording: “telegram text for this mrn [message reference number] is unavailable.” That does not mean that all are gone for good; some copies will show up in embassy files or presidential libraries. Moreover, copies can often be found in P-reel microfilm collections at the State Department and the National Archives, depending on the years. The “message attribution” information appended to such documents [an example] includes the microfilm numbers that can be used for requesting copies.