"Declassification," U.S. government-style. This document is 71 years old.
Probably more than anything else, “Drain the swamp” was the slogan of the Deplorables in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Candidate Trump introduced the phrase to describe his ethics program in mid-October, but it quickly came to sum up, part battle-cry, part prayer, the anti-Establishment fervor that would carry him to the White House on November 8.
There is more to “draining the swamp” than pulling the plug on today’s Washington Establishment. There is a vast historical swamp that President Trump must drain also; that murky place where generations of government secrets stay hidden, whether still classified, or declassified but still "redacted" (censored). While the Washington Establishment may draw staying power from keeping its secrets secret, these records of our government’s deliberations and actions belong to the American people.
I am not referring to anything, once released, which would adversely affect national defense or security; the military; or intelligence operations. I am talking mostly about very old papers, records, memos drawn up by federal officials forty, fifty, seventy, or more years ago ostensibly on behalf of their employers, the American people. Treating these relics as “state secrets” is more than just absurd; it is an outrage against democratic governance. But it also exacts terrible costs. For those Americans in the POW/MIA community still waiting for “secret” information about their lost and missing loved ones, there is the excruciating human toll. Additionally, without the fullest record possible of seminal events and key figures, not only is our understanding of the past incomplete and thus flawed; so, too, is our understanding of the present and ability to rise to its challenges.
A natural question occurs: If there is no security risk to releasing such documents, what reason keeps them from the American people to whom they belong?
There may well be logistical delays that stymie this flow of history from the shadow of the file folder to the light of public release; however, a large part of the answer goes to the heart of the Establishment hold, not just on contemporary Washington, but on American history itself – the story of our country’s life and times. There are vast powers to gain from setting and perpetuating national myths; by controlling entry into the nation’s pantheon of heroes; and these powers continue to be used to help drive the course of events. (This is a theme of American Betrayal.)
In the case of seemingly eternal classification, that Establishment hold on history is a literal hold. Take the state of records released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as discussed in Blacklisted by History by the late journalist and author M. Stanton Evans: “In case after significant case, entries have been held back or heavily “redacted” (blacked out), sometimes for dozens of pages at a stretch. In nearly every instance, such redactions concern materials fifty years of age and counting.”
Noting the absence of national security interests in keeping these "ancient data" secret, Evans continued: “Without the documents referred to, and without the items blacked out in the records, attempts to chronicle our domestic Cold War, while not entirely futile, are subject to the most serious limits.”
As an example, Evans described a one-page memo written by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Tom Clarke seventy-one years ago. The memo identifies a federal employee named David Wahl, whose government career included stints inside wartime agencies including the OSS, and whom Evans described as a “shadowy Cold War figure,” as having been, in Hoover’s words, “reliably reported to be a `master spy’ for the Soviet government while employed by the United States government in Washington, D.C.”
And then what happened?
Evans wrote: “After this jolting revelation, however, the next paragraph is blacked out entirely. The obvious question arises: If the Hoover comment that Wahl was `reliably reported' to be a Soviet `master spy' is left in the records, what must be in the part that’s missing?”
Chances are good that whatever that censored paragraph says, it does not harm our national security in 2017. Chances are also good that this additional bit of “ancient data” further chips away at the Establishment narrative, which continues to belittle Communist infiltration directed by the Kremlin as a “Red Scare.”
Such exercises in Establishment narrative-protection, and what Judicial Watch lead investigator Chris Farrell calls "legacy preservation," abound. Take this memo (below) from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s FBI file, as released to Judicial Watch in June of 2010 through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Dated December 28, 1961, this memo between senior FBI officials discusses a “South American assessment survey” that 29-year-old Ted Kennedy made before running for the US Senate seat vacated by his brother John, who had been elected President the year before.
In its original state of “declassification," the contents are completely censored! It would take Judicial Watch eight more months and three additional FOIA actions to find out what the memo actually says.
On the second go-round (below), there is scant progress – tittle-tattle from a State Department official who called Kennedy “pompous and a spoiled brat.” No state secrets there. The official “confidentially advised that Kennedy had made similar requests in Peru.” Requests for what, however, We, the People don’t know.
The third release (below) yields some intriguing news: On this 1961 South American tour, the US Ambassador to Bogota “said the first person whom Kennedy wanted to meet was Lauchlin Currie.”
That should raise eyebrows. It is a well-documented fact that Currie was a Soviet agent while serving as a top White House aide to President Franklin Roosevelt. Why did President Kennedy's brother seek Currie out in Columbia? That's a question no one can even try to find the answer to unless the meeting is known to have happened in the first place.
In its final form (below) -- the fourth release, if anyone is keeping score -- the memo opens a heretofore unknown window onto Kennedy’s abiding interest in `the angry young men’ “ of Latin America -- “communists and others who had left-wing views,” as recommended to him by a Harvard professor apparently serving as his “political counselor.”
These are historical bomblets, with ramifications for Kennedy’s political biography. (Not so much the memo’s concluding news of Kennedy's “arrangements to rent a brothel," etc., etc.) However, note that nothing in this memo has any national security dimension whatsoever. In the government’s extreme reluctance to release, we see “legacy preservation” only. When it comes to this one single page of the historical record (thanks to the resources and staying power of Judicial Watch), the People triumphed. There are only about ten million pages to go.
That hidden record is not only of historical relevance. Compelling reasons exist to declassify more recent government secret documents, if only partly. For example, writing at National Review, author David Satter makes the case that it’s high time the CIA “reveal what it knows about the September 1999 Russian apartment bombings that Vladimir Putin to power.” Satter is referring to the bombings for which Russia blamed Chechnya, then launched the invasion into Chechnya that brought Vladimir Putin “overnight popularity,” leading to his being elected president in 2000.
Satter writes that these 18-year-old bombings “pose the question of whether Putin is a terrorist” – obviously, a question whose answer has urgent ramifications for American policy today.
To date, Satter’s FOIA requests to the State Department, the CIA and the FBI for documents related to the bombings have yielded a partial response from State, demonstrating “convincingly that the U.S. government at the time knew far more about the attack that is known as `Russia’s 9/11’ than it was ready publicly to reveal.” The response from the CIA, Satter writes, has been “unhelpful.” Turns out “the CIA would not even acknowledge the existence of records on the 1999 Russian apartment bombings” and claimed that to do so would endanger “sources and methods.” In this case, redaction would be appropriate, thereby allowing the CIA to serve the public interest while protecting its activities. What the public needs, Satter explains, “is the CIA’s opinion … as well as the logic of that evaluation.”
Absolutely. How can Americans even hope to make rational judgments, in this case about Russia, without this and so much other crucial information government agencies, supposedly working for the American taxpayer, hold in secrecy? How can our experts, academics, journalists -- anyone without the requisite security clearance – hope to assess current events without it? Taking care to preserve CIA sources and methods, there remains no good reason for keeping such information -- gathered, like the rest, on the taxpayer’s dime -- from the public. Continued secrecy empowers the select, the few, the Establishment, to play their political games, but, again, this is no rationale for free citizens of a sovereign nation.
For now, there is one more cache of government “secrets” to introduce. It is the most important one on my list because its release would be nothing less than an epic humanitarian act -- one I am certain President Trump would wish to accomplish as quickly as possible if he only knew about it.
I refer to the memos and reports, the defector testimonies, satellite photos and the like that our government withholds from the public, and which piece together the fate of many of our fellow citizens who put on our nation’s uniform, were captured or went missing in every war the United States has ever fought against the Soviet Union, beginning in World War I. These Americans became not just POWs or MIAs, but pawns and counters, merely expendable dead weight to too many of our elected officials and the bureaucracies that support them, as a multi-generational Establishment played its great games. I refer to our live American POWs/MIAs who did not come home.
It is still the heart-breaking case that neither did their records, which remain locked up inside government archives, even as their survivors, their families, have grown old and, in many cases, died, without ever seeing the government record about their loved ones, even when it was a confirmation of death.
It’s a long, tragic and outrageous story – too much for this space. As one of the leading and most effective researchers in the field, Mark Sauter, summed up its more recent history for me, “During the 1990s, the US government – up to and including the White House – fought to keep secret decades-old classified documents that reported that communists had kept US POWs after the Korean War, Cold War, and Vietnam War.” (This horrendous story is also discussed in American Betrayal.) Given the government’s permanent lock-down on such files, the families of these men – our families, our men – have been, as Sauter put it, “left to their own devices in searching wartime files to help resolve the fates of their loved ones.”
Below is a copy of a “withdrawal sheet” from Sauter's files. It tells us that a 1955 memo on "Escape and Evasion" from a military unit known to have tracked US POWs during and after the Korean War was withdrawn from public access at the National Archives. This is just one of thousands of relevant pages that POW/MIA families are still blocked from reviewing -- in this case, 62 years after it was written.
“At this rate, we – the wives, sons and daughters, and other loved ones of these missing men – will all be dead before these files are finally released in their entirety,” said John Zimmerlee, son of a missing Korean War aviator, Board Member/VP of Research for the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, and co-author, with Mark Sauter, of American Trophies.
I must conclude that this is exactly what the creatures of the Washington Historical Swamp intend. Peering into the murk, we can make out the intersection of competing interests – the “legacy preservation” of the Washington Historical Swamp, versus the rightful claims to the truth by the American people. So long as the struggle continues in the dark, the Swamp wins.
As Sauter relates, the US government has for decades claimed there was no evidence that Korean War POWs were shipped to Red China or the USSR, or held after the war at all. “Meanwhile, the CIA and other agencies were keeping secret multiple reports describing exactly that.”
It is a fact that once this historical swamp is drained and the truth is set free, the questions are likely to be as endless as the recriminations, the vindications, the legacy revisions, the historical rewrites, and much more. There could be nothing healthier for the republic than such a national soul-searching.
Revelation should be swift, however, not piecemeal, as in this example of a document (below) that Sauter explains only became public in 2013. It is a request made after the end of the Korean War from America’s top Air Force general to the CIA for help rescuing POWs still being held in captivity.
The Army made a similar request; apparently, it remains classified.
Vietnam War POW/MIA records are similarly boxed up in official secrecy. Sauter notes that a group of POW/MIA family members and veterans are suing the CIA to obtain still-secret records from the Vietnam War, a conflict that ended more than forty years ago. They hope to pry loose everything from “records involving plans to rescue American prisoners reported held after the war, to specific policy documents, such as a CIA memo to Dr. Henry Kissinger entitled: `Subject: Indication that the Communists Are Holding Previously Unlisted U.S. POWs as a Future Bargaining Tool, March 20, 1973.' " They have already slogged through more than 12 years of litigation.
This shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to be. President Trump can immediately release these and many more documents to the American people, where they belong, and streamline the release of many more. De-mystifying Washington by draining the historical swamp is one of the most important powers President Trump has to restore sovereignty to the people who sent him there. Use it.