The scheduled release of declassified documents in the official State Department history is 30 years. In practice it is a bit longer, about 35 years or so usually.
Of course, not everything is declassified. Sometimes it turns out on independent investigation by serious historians that the record has been seriously falsified by omission. Occasionally there are administrations that have such extraordinary hatred of democracy that they simply destroy crucial records rather than allow the feared and despised public to know what their government is doing, even decades later.
The most extreme example is the folks who are now running Washington, in their Reaganite phase, and are now described by the press and commentators as “Wilsonian idealists” pursuing their Leader’s “messianic vision” of bringing democracy for the world, the evidence being that his speech writers declare this to be true. When in office in the 1980s, they refused to release — and perhaps destroyed — records of the overthrow of the elected governments of Iran and Guatemala in 1953, 1954, opening the way in both cases to decades of vicious state crimes. That violation of standard practice was so extreme that the State Department historians, quite a conservative lot, resigned in public protest. I can’t recall another case like it.
There is no statute of limitations on these crimes of state. But it doesn’t matter. The fundamental principle of international justice is that the powerful are exempt, as a matter of principle. That principle was enshrined in the Nuremberg Tribunal, which is understood to be the foundation of modern “universalization” of justice — where “universal” is understood to mean: excluding us. That reaches even as far as outright genocide.
The World Court is still considering a charge brought by Yugoslavia against NATO under the genocide convention. The US removed itself from the case on the grounds that when it ratified the Genocide Convention (after 40 years), it added the usual reservation to the (very few) human rights conventions that the US has ratified: it is inapplicable to the US (“non self-executing,” in technical terms). The World Court correctly accepted this argument.
The principle is so deeply embedded in the moral and intellectual culture that it is apparently imperceptible. Thus a few weeks ago, the national press reported the release of Nixon-Kissinger interchanges (over Kissinger’s strong objections). The report noted in passing that Kissinger, always the obedient bureaucrat, transmitted Nixon’s orders to bomb Cambodia with the words: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”
I cannot think of a comparable call for extraordinary war crimes. If someone were to unearth a document in which Milosevic orders the Serbian air force to reduce Bosnia or Kosovo to rubble with the words “Anything that flies on anything that moves” — or even something remotely approaching it — the prosecutors would be overjoyed, the trial would end, and Milosevic would be sent off to many successive life sentences for the crime of genocide, a death sentence if the Tribunal followed US conventions. In this case, after casual mention in the world’s leading newspaper, there was no detectable interest, even though the horrendous consequences are well-known. And rightly, if we adopt, given the principle that we cannot — by definition — carry out crimes or have any responsibility for them.