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November 6, 1997

Head of National Security Archive says librarians are civilization's 1st defense against totalitarianism

It would be hard to imagine a more incongruent image. On one side stand SS storm troopers, concentration camps and Stalin's gulag. On the other side, holding back the dark tide, stand librarians and archivists, civilization's first line of defense against totalitarianism.

Librarians and archivists are important defenders of liberty because the first thing that totalitarian regimes seek to do is control and destroy information. Librarians and archivists, on the other hand, seek to preserve and make available information, explained Thomas Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive (NSA).

The NSA, an independent archive, has become the largest user in the world of non-classified U.S. government documents available under the Freedom of Information Act. According to The Christian Science Monitor, NSA houses the largest collection of contemporary declassified national security information outside of the federal government.

Blanton made his remarks during his "Information Ethics and Government Power: From the Stasi Files to the White House" lecture at the Oct. 27 Information Sciences Dean's Forum on Information Ethics.

"The difference in the information between democracies and totalitarianism goes to the heart of what my profession, our profession, has become," Blanton told information sciences students and professionals in the audience. He said the proper function of concentration camps requires the control of information, so the collection and preservation of information are the first weapons against the camps.

"We know how meticulous the Nazis were in creating records of their destruction," he continued, "and then how meticulous they were in destroying them or attempting to destroy them. As for the communist regimes, their whole existences were posited upon lies. When glasnost occurred, those edifices crumbled [because information was revealed]." Although he has never faced the pressure that totalitarian regimes can exert upon their citizens, Blanton knows firsthand the lengths to which the U.S. government will go to control the information available to the American public.

The NSA was formed in 1985 by a group of investigative journalists. Over the past 12 years, it has filed 18,000 Freedom of Information Act declassification requests involving 200 different federal agencies and has initiated 21 lawsuits to counter stonewalling by the federal government. Through those efforts, it has freed up nearly five million pages of formerly secret documents and published about a half-million of them.

Among the documents the NSA has brought to light are the Kennedy/Khrushchev letters from the Cuban missile crisis, Oliver North's diaries from the Iran Contra scandal and e-mail from the Reagan administration. The e-mail battle ran through three administrations and inspired Blanton's 1995 book "White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan/Bush White House Tried to Destroy." The case of the White House e-mail began with the Iran Contra scandal and the fact that shortly before hearings on the scandal were to begin, two figures at the center of the scandal, North and Admiral John Poindexter, secretly deleted thousands of e-mail messages related to the scandal. A backup taping system saved the messages and more than seven million others created during the Reagan presidency.

As Reagan prepared to leave office in January 1989, his staff decided that its e-mail messages should not be preserved because they were the equivalent of telephone message slips. An order to delete the messages was signed by General Colin Powell, then a member of the National Security Council.

Learning of the Reagan administration's assertion, the NSA demanded a meeting with senior officials at the National Archives. Those officials told the NSA that the messages weren't needed, which sent the NSA rushing to court just 30 hours before the deletions were to begin.

"With Watergate, there was an 18 and a half minute gap," Blanton pointed out. "What we were talking about here was something on the order of years and years of gap in the fundamental communications mechanism of the White House." With the aide of a single pro bono attorney, Blanton said, the NSA put together a "sort of a kitchen-sink legal complaint. We just threw everything in there looking for any grounds that could possibly be sustained to get an injunction." The next day, the NSA team showed up in court expecting to find the government represented by an associate deputy assistant U.S. attorney. Instead, in marched John Bolton, the acting attorney general, with enough other administration lawyers to fill five rows of seats in the court room.

In attacking the NSA suit, the government argued that the White House staff was simply moving out, "taking the pictures off the wall," Blanton said. The judge asked what was going to happen to the e-mail. When Bolton said the material was going to be deleted, the judge asked: "Do people when they are moving out really take their furniture out on the lawn and burn it?" The judge sustained the NSA's request for an injunction and ordered the case to proceed. It went on for four more years before a decision was handed down in favor of the plaintiffs. Even after the court ruled in January 1993 that the e-mail messages had to be preserved, the fight did not stop. On the night before the Clinton staff was to move into the White House, members of the Bush staff removed the e-mail involved from the Executive Office Building. According to Blanton, President Bush reached a secret agreement with Don Wilson, the archivist of the United States, that gave Bush personal legal control over the tapes at midnight the day before the Clinton staff moved into the White House.

Soon after the agreement became public, Wilson came under heavy fire and was forced to resign. A short time later he became director of the George Bush Presidential Library at the University of Texas.

Even though they were from a different political party, the Clinton staff backed up the furniture argument of the Reagan and Bush administrations. By then, though, it was too late. The historic importance of the e-mail had been established and in the summer of 1993 an appeals court ruled that e-mail had to be saved.

With the appeals court ruling, the Clinton administration gave up the fight to destroy the e-mail and took another tack. To keep a similar situation from developing, it declared that the National Security Council was no longer covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Then it got the National Archives to rule that e-mail could be destroyed if copies of the most important pieces were first printed out.

"From my experience with the Clinton administration, I've come to a conclusion about Democrats and Republicans and the public's right to know," Blanton said. "There is not really that much difference in terms of what different administrations do, but I think the Democrats feel more guilty than the Republicans." Because of that guilt, Blanton said, Clinton's National Security Council, even though it is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, continues to turn over information. Blanton said they respond by noting that they are not subject to the act, then send the material. He expects that to end with the next Republican administration.

Why did three presidents fight so hard to protect the e-mail? Blanton said there are three reasons. The first was personal privacy: The authors of the e-mail never imagined the material would be made public. "For that reason, the incredible candor of the stuff, it is a historian's dream," Blanton said. "At the same time, it is privacy nightmare." The second reason the NSA encountered resistance, Blanton feels, is because the National Archives is at a loss as to the technological challenges involved in saving large amounts of e-mail. Since the National Archives staff does not know what to do with it, Blanton said, they have a tendency "to throw up their hands and then go along with whatever the White House wants." The third reason for the battle, Blanton added, was power. Information is power and the White House did not want to surrender any of its power.

But nothing the White House did compares to the Stasi, the former East German secret police. Blanton called the Stasi files a "massive toxic waste dump of archival information, of surveillance and slander amassed by the East German police with the assistance of tens of thousands of informers over about 50 years." When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, one of the first places the German people headed was for the Stasi offices, according to Blanton. What they found when the reached the building was an incredible amount of shredding going on. They stopped it and uncovered 125 miles of files.

The German government has since turned over the Stasi files to an authority headed by a former dissident and has opened them to the public, Blanton noted. That has launched an important debate on the nature of collaboration. According to Blanton, the bedrock for the German success is the independence of the authority that now controls the Stasi files. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, secret police files have stayed in Interior Ministries where they are the subject of constant leaks and slanders. Blanton said that Germany's example is something everybody can learn from. "The Stasi solution is by definition not perfect because perfection is impossible to balance in those kinds of complexities," Blanton said. "But it does accomplish a fundamental shift in power out of government's hands, partially into the hands of the victims and out of the hands of the agency that created them [the files] and profited from them." Blanton said the Stasi solution points to the 20th century's greatest moral quandary: the concentration camps. Most camp victims were neither saints nor heroes and most camp guards and commanders were neither beasts nor monsters, but in many respects ordinary people.

When looking at such evil, Blanton said, people should not look at the character of the individuals involved so much as the nature of the society that imposes such imperatives. Once such a system is in place, the vast majority of the population is at risk of becoming accomplices. He said totalitarianism is less a risk in the United States than in some other societies because information is available, and that it is the duty of the library and the archive to be the first guard against totalitarianism.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 6

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