Shared duty

I attended the Open Forum for the National Declassification Center of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) yesterday morning.   A public event, at which anyone who wanted to attend was welcome.  For complicated reasons related to “Washington,” I chose to sign for annual leave although I could have come on official time.  I did the same last year (my account of the 2011 forum is here).

Some of my NARA friends were in the front of the McGowan Theater where I sat, others up high, in the back.  I enjoyed chatting with some of them before and after the panel.  Many good people among them.  I’ve told the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, that I consider “Declass” to be the strong side of his house.  I’m very proud of my friends who hold positions of various rank in Agency Services.

My sister, Eva, once worked with many members of David’s current team, among them another David, David Mengel.  He is the deputy director of the NDC.  Others, such as NDC director Sheryl Shenberger, shown left above, never knew her.  But something tells me Eva and Sheryl would have gotten along very well, indeed.  I admire Sheryl for who she is and how she is handling a challenging mission.  The photos below show David Mengel, Don McIlwain, and A. J. Daverede of NDC yesterday.  All old and cherished friends to me.  The photo from 2002 of me with David Mengel and Neil Carmichael?  At Ledo’s, College Park, Maryland.

I’ll be honest.  Going to the event, I thought I would be putting up a light and breezy post this post about how much fun I had.  And there was much about my time at NARA yesterday that was fun.  But instead, I find in my mind that I’m editing out some of the day altogether. Those parts don’t seem to fit Washington’s standards.  (No, I’m not talking about the fact that I wore skinny jeans yesterday as business casual.)  

The photo my friend A. J. snapped of me shows me at the end of the event.  Yes, I’m smiling.  I’m about to chat with another friend, Don McIlwain.  Don did a great job as a participant in the panel and a moderator of the Q&A portion.  But my instincts tell me sobriety, not levity, is the way to go.    I’ve decided to focus only on a couple of points. And to declare an impairment on another.

That I read this post by John H. Taylor after I woke up this morning is only part of it.  A tough subject.  I admired the honesty of the writing. 

I’m in Washington, a place with a set way of operating and long codified standards as well as unwritten rules.  I spent much of yesterday evening thinking about Washington.  Most of all, I thought about its metrics for success–for institutions, for individuals, for human beings. 

Don will be putting up follow up posts about the Open Forum at the NDC blog.  I’ll only touch on a couple of things today. 

The theme of the Open Forum was “NDC challenges at two years: what did we learn, and how are we moving forward?”  When Sheryl commented after the first panel, “It’s ok to applaud,” my laughter rang out from the front row as I did so.  Was I too un-Washington, too much the untamed bureaucrat in my supportive laughter?  I don’t know, I don’t know.  I have a lot of thinking ahead of me about unwritten rules.

My sister Eva was working in Declass when it first felt the impact of the Kyl-Lott Amendment on its work in the 1990s.  George Lardner touched on some of that in a May 2001 article, “DOE Puts Declassification Into Reverse:  Reviewers Combing Historic Files at Archives for Data to Reclassify as Secret.”  You pick up on a divisive vibe, especially in the reference to certain people as unsung heroes.   That us versus them vibe, again.  It could and should have been avoided.

I know from my sister what was going on then and in the late 1990s in Declass.   As a result, I’m declaring an impairment (in auditing terms) and skipping over the discussion of Kyl-Lott yesterday at NARA.  Yes, despite the fact that Steve Aftergood recently wrote about it.  I didn’t hear the type of discussion I would like to have heard on the matter during the Open Forum.  Yet I understand why I did not. 

David Mengel handled his moderator duties superbly.  I found very refreshing the ability to immerse myself for two hours in an environment where records are seen as having value in a democracy.  And where people want to look at how to apply continuous improvement principles to handling them.    It’s so easy for me in Fedland to forget that there are places where people face, even embrace, such opportunities.  I came away liking the concept that governmental players have a “shared duty” to handle sensitive information properly and that no single agency can go it alone.  But I also thought about what I wrote here in January, that some of what we face in Fedland, we face alone, and we cannot share.


The question and answer session went much as I expected.  The usual questions from the usual suspects.  NARA Counsel Gary Stern handled a question about unreleased records that may relate to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   Don McIlwain skillfully handled MC duties for this portion of the session.

I didn’t go to the microphone and offer a question or comment.  And not just because a friend called out “here comes trouble” when I entered McGowan, to which I laughed, “I’ll be good.”  This truly was an Open Forum, and I was as welcome there as anyone else.  And of course, I was among friends, for the most part, from top to bottom of the theater.  But as I listened to the set piece questions and answers, with everyone playing their assigned roles, I realized how little true inquiry was on display.  There were no scholars asking questions about the process through which they get access to important records.  No students of public policy or political science asking about the environment in which NARA works. 

What I would have said, I’ll say at my blog instead.  I admire my NARA and ANDC peeps.  I respect them.  They inhabit and work in a little understood world.  They have a strong sense of mission and in many key elements, a strong esprit de corps.  Someday their story will be told.  I hope it finds the understanding it deserves.  Had I taken the mic yesterday, I would have said, “Rock on, N, A, and ANDC.”

How can I close this out?  Unsure.  Perhaps I’ll go back to the past and put up a photo.   Eva, at Ledo’s, October 17, 2002, with David Mengel and Neil Carmichael.  Two months later, she would be gone. But the best of her conscientious vibe lives on in Declass.  And in some people I know at NARA, her gentle, generous, sharing spirit, as well. 

Eva would have enjoyed the Open Forum, and not just because she had been a supervisor and team leader in NARA’s Declass unit.  She’s shown below in 1998 celebrating her birthday with Joe Scanlon, A.J., and Chuck Hughes.   

Supervisor, manager, executive.  Those are just titles granted to people, after all.   What they do with them is up to each individual. 

Eva?  “She took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.” Thank you, A.J., for recognizing that in her. Shared duty. Yes, that is what it is all about.  We just define duties in a little different ways, depending on how broadly we look at scope and goals.  And what we are willing to embrace.  And thinking about that is a good place to end.  It’s not where I thought I would be this morning.  But sometimes, you just go with the flow.

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