Some archives, records and history related items that caught my eye recently.
My blogging friend, former Nixon chief of staff John H. Taylor, links to Adam Nagourney’s article in the New York Times about a new Disney exhibit at the Reagan Presidential Library. In a comment at John’s blog, I mention having read several books about Disney. His creative vision was interesting but he does not sound like an easy person for whom to work. If you are interested in how the creative and production processes played out, I recommend Neil Gabler’s 2006 book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. The New York Times’s review is here.
Nagourney notes that there was not a strong link between Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, although they knew each other. Disney was a Republican and shows up in the Series 320 Nixon Pre-Presidential correspondence which was the first collection I worked on as an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I remember one of the first boxes in the series on which I did disclosure review included correspondence filed alphabetically under D. (Justin Dart’s name has stayed in my memory.)
The National Archives’ finding aid for the 320 General Correspondence series, which shows Walt and Roy Disney’s names, is here. My archival cohort initially worked on the materials in Washington, then later traveled to the National Archives’ records center at Laguna Niguel to re-review some of the records in 1978. We are pictured below working with 320 series records in California.
In another recent post at his blog, John provides some additional information about a subject he once commented on at my blog, former President Nixon’s reaction to the musical Carousel. I initially wrote about that last December in “All too human (tears speak volumes).”
Steven Aftergood posted at the Secrecy News blog* on the latest report on the work of the National Declassification Center of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He points to “notable improvements in interagency collaboration in declassifying records, along with increased efficiency and steadily growing productivity.” However, he notes that “the declassification program will almost certainly miss its presidentially-mandated goal of eliminating the backlog of 25 year old records awaiting declassification by December 2013.”
Aftergood writes, “It is shocking — or it ought to be — that the classification system is not fully responsive to presidential authority.” I know from my own work with the Nixon tapes and that of my late sister, a supervisory archivist and team leader in the declassification unit, how complicated is the assignment handed NARA. And of course I know a lot about how Washington and bureaucracies work. I count many friends among the officials involved with the NDC and believe they are making a good faith effort. I admire and respect the steps they’ve taken to improve declassification review procedures and processes in an agency undergoing transformation.
I would not call the current situation “shocking.” But in the interests of fairness, I should point out that depending on our objectives in writing, we all have different threshholds for what dismays us. Indeed, I realize that some of what concerns me and which I’ve discussed at my blog might meet with a shrug from others. It’s that way for all of us on various issues.
Aftergood offers some suggestions but they focus on actions that he believes could affect disclosure of records currently being created rather than the handling of the backlog with which NARA is working. You can read them at his blog. I’ll comment on one. Aftergood suggests “the surrender of agency ‘equity’ or ownership in government records after a period of time so as to enable third-party (or automatic) declassification of the records.” Equity holder review is less about ownership than about presumptive agency/departmental ability to apply situational awareness to disclosure and restriction decisions.
Surrender to third parties (by which I think he means NARA reviewers) would have implications for training of personnel. It also would require the National Archives to commit to backing up decisions made by its reviewers without pointing to the type of coordination with the agencies and departments that now occurs. That my NARA cohort received no such backup from senior management in the late 1980s and early 1990s in our work with classified and unclassified Nixon White House records does not mean it could not occur in a different agency culture. The present managerial culture is in the process of changing in key ways from what I encountered when I worked at the agency decades ago. The changes and vibe vary somewhat from unit to unit.
Aftergood does not mention the issue of overclassification, although he has discussed that in other blog posts. Bill Leonard, former director of NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office, has been a leading voice in talking about this issue, while in federal service and now in retirement. This is a challenging issue to discuss from within or outside the government, as I found when I testified in the Nixon tapes litigation about our work with classified and unclassified information that had not been released officially. It is difficult to defend the handling of records or call for changes when you cannot discuss the content of records.
*The correct link to the Secrecy News site is http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/ I copied the wrong URL initially; the original version of this post linked to the menus at a restaurant near the National Archives, ha.