In defense of the National Archives

Peter Kornbluh, Cuba scholar at the non-profit National Security Archive, objects to yesterday’s post criticizing the National Archives for its stance on secret JFK files.

“This criticism of NARA General Counsel, Gary Stern, seems a classic case of shooting the messenger–and in this case an ally for transparency on this issue,” Kornbluh writes.

Peter Kornblush, Cuba analyst at the non-profit National Security Archive.

Kornbluh is a friend whose scholarship on U.S.-Cuba policy is central to understanding JFK’s presidency. And I welcome Stern’s personal commitment to open government. Nonetheless, I think the public can reasonably expect the National Archives general counsel to act in a capacity greater than “messenger” for the CIA’s diktat.

Kornbluh is right that Stern deserves credit for pressing the issue with the Agency, and I should have mentioned that.

Kornbluh writes:

“Being responsive to concerns and pressures from right-to-know community, and to the excellent work of Jefferson Morley on this issue, more than two years ago NARA officials went to the CIA and formally requested that they come clean on these records for the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The CIA refused. As the above column concedes, NARA does not have the power to force the CIA to comply–no other agency except the White House itself has that power–but can only ask. NARA did ask, and deserves credit for that initiative which puts the public onus on the CIA.”

Fair enough, but that doesn’t go far enough. Stern and the Archives could — and should — do more, even within the confines of Washington bureaucratic politics.

Why can’t the Archives respectfully acknowledge the CIA’s decision and respectfully state its recommendation that the CIA review and release these records as soon as possible?

It should not need stating (but evidently does) that the interests of the National Archives are not identical to those of the CIA. The Archives would lose nothing — and indeed would gain public respect — by asserting the importance of full disclosure in the JFK assassination records.

Archivist David Ferriero has asked the public to comment on priorities in declassification and the public responded, via the Transforming Classification blog and the online petition, with strong expressions of support for immediate JFK declassification.

That is the message which the National Archives should be the messenger for.





  1. Jonathan says:

    I’ve no doubt Kornbluh is writing in defense of bureaucracy and that to him truth and its revelation are quite secondary.

  2. Steve says:

    Agreed. The National Archives public stance – or lack thereof – on withheld JFK records is important.

    For NARA through its representatives to stand silent in the face of CIA suppression is tantamount to agreement or at least weak-willed acquiescence to the Agency. Unacceptable for a public institution whose purpose is to release records.

    Gary Stern, as lead attorney with the concommitant ethical duties to the Archives and therefore to the public interest, should be taken to task for ignoring the public demand and for not speaking out today. Likewise, he should not be praised for asking for the records two years ago with no known follow-up. Tough assessment, maybe, but his high position warrants one. Enough is enough.

    As to Peter Kornbluh and the National Security Archive, I have the highest respect. At the same time, I don’t see any of their considerable resources devoted to the release or discussion of suppressed CIA, FBI, Secret Service, ONI, Pentagon records related to the JFK assassination. They cover many more obscure events. If I’ve missed a post or news from their site I stand corrected. But it seems largely ignored for such a seminal event in American history.

  3. Larry Schnapf says:

    I urge everyone who is concerned about this issue to write to the person who is supposed to in charge of the CIA-President Obama and ask him to order the CIA to comply with his own executive order regarding government transparency.

    If there are any members of the White House Press Corps who follow this website, I urge you to exercise the responsibility you have as a member of the Fourth Estate and ask this question at every White House Briefing going forward until you can an answer to this important question.

  4. Dan says:

    Archives General Counsel Stern states that the most sensitive JFK assassination records are still secret. These include the 1,171 CIA documents identified in litigation, but also extensive redactions in already released records, and possibly other records that have not been produced. If you are keeping score, then the state of play is that fifty years after the murder of the President the government today does not trust we the people with the most sensitive information about this assassination. This is the problem, not the psycho-babble explanations that were prevalent in the news coverage of the recent 50th anniversary.

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