The Declassified Record

Z Sustainer: I'm not really clear about what you mean when you refer to the "declassified
record." Whatever it is that you're referring to is obviously an unbelievably
valuable resource. Again and again, I've seen you expose amazing and very
enlightening facts, citing this "declassified record." I realize it's not a
single source (e.g., all memoranda from any secretary of state to any
president). I have no idea how many documents are classified by the U.S.
government in an average year, but I'm guessing that it would take a single
person more than a lifetime to read even one year's worth. It can't be that you
just read everything that the federal government ever declassifies. How do you
know what to read? How do journalists, academics, etc. know what to ask for in
FOIA requests, when they (as a matter of logic) don't what's in a specific
document or even that it exists? Does everything just get declassified after a
generation or two? What about the Bush administration's (illegitimately?)
reclassifying documents?

Noam Chomsky: There is an official declassification procedure, run by
historians in connection with
the State Department. They
review documents of all government agencies that allow it (the
CIA, for example, often does not), and decide which ones to
release. Theoretically, it's
supposed to be after 30 years.
In practice, a bit longer. The record is called Foreign
Relations of the United States. It's available in any good
research library (like
universities), and by now a lot is

In addition, the government regularly declassifies documents. There
is, at least used
to be, a regular publication listing
declassified documents.

One can also obtain documents through the Freedom of Information Act,
or by research
in presidential libraries and other archival
sources. That's a lot of work

Administrations differ in what they are willing to release. The
"conservatives," more accurately statist
reactionaries, are the worst. The Reagan
administration caused
a major scandal by refusing to release, perhaps destroying,
documents on the overthrow of the governments of Iran and
Guatemala in the early 50s.
That actually led to the
resignation of the (quite conservative) State Department
historians, and blasts in the professional journals and
sometimes even the press. I think
the Bush administration may
be the first to "reclassify" documents, and have been charged
(I haven't checked carefully) with refusing to release
documents of the Johnson years.

99% of it is quite boring, but there are nuggets. How do you know
what to read and
look for? It's rather like asking a chemist
what to look for in the thousands of
technical papers that pour
out, or of the innumerable experiments that can be done? We're
all overwhelmed by a deluge of data, and can find out what's
important only by developing
a framework of insight and
understanding, whether it's in the hard sciences or daily
There aren't any special tricks.


Z Sustainer: I'd like it if you could also answer me more broadly as well, not just
restricted to the "declassified record." Where do you find out about, for
example, and this is only an example, the details about diplomatic proposals
that were made between the U.S. and the Milosevic government, not now but at the
time the crisis was actually going on?

Noam Chomsky: What I reported was public information, right at the time, which the
press refused to
report, e.g., about the Serbian proposals for
diplomatic settlement on the eve of the
bombing, but a lot
more. There's plenty available in the public record, but one has to
search to find it.


Z Sustainer: I understand that you are heavily plugged into a network of like-minded
academics, activists and journalists. I'm not referring to that (mostly). I'm
talking about primary sources that disclose facts embarrassing to the
establishment, actually admitted to on paper by the establishment; the best
example I know of is the set of early National Security Council memoranda.

Noam Chomsky: It's true that over the years one develops personal contacts, but
no need to exaggerate it. The network I'm plugged into overlaps extensively
with what you can read on Znet. The early NSC memoranda were declassified,
usually after something like the 30-year gap. But they are not studied much,
even in scholarship often, and they rarely make it to the general public. Just
to give an example, one of the most important questions about the post-war
period is the record of documents concerning China. They're public up through
the 60s, for the most part, but the first really serious book about the "NSC
culture" as revealed in the documents is just coming out, a fascinating study by
James Peck, a fine China scholar, called Washington's


Z Sustainer: Is all of this stuff available in any decent university library in
the U.S.?

Noam Chomsky: The most important parts, or they can be obtained by interlibrary
loan or by now, on the internet.

Leave a comment