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Truth and justice
Two Newark historians in the public sphere

Archived article from Nov 10, 2000

By Douglas Frank  

Warren Kimball: Fighting federal secrecy

So, Dr. Kimball, on the one hand our government has entities that are charged with being truthful and others that are supposed to hide stuff?”

“It’s an appropriately confusing dynamic. I love it.”

Everybody knows the United States government needs to keep secrets, but, as a democracy, it is also committed to the public’s right to know. Helping maintain this delicate balance and open the doors to information is Warren Kimball, the Robert Treat Professor of History on the Newark campus.

Kimball was the first chair (1991–1998) and remains a member of the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee, a congressionally mandated advisory committee to the series “Foreign Relations of the United States,” regarded as the world’s most prestigious and long-standing documentary collection on foreign policy.

The federal government has published this record of American foreign policy since 1861. Professional standards of research and editing were established in the 1920s, and trained historians were hired by the State Department to research and compile the volumes.

For a long time the aim was to tell the people on a timely basis what their government was doing in international affairs. Over the years, however, our expanded involvement in world affairs and the fear generated by the Cold War created a vast “information security system” designed to protect our secrets, sometimes for longer than necessary, according to Kimball.

In addition, other agencies besides the White House and the State Department came to have a direct involvement in the development and implementation of foreign policy — the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense and the Treasury Department, to name just a few. These agencies are not always amenable to releasing information to the public, especially if it is embarrassing to public officials.

When these agencies close their doors to the State Department historians, particularly when the information they seek is some three decades old, Kimball and his committee have stepped in.

The committee was created and given a mandate by a 1991 statute aimed at opening 30-year-old documents on foreign policy. Its nine members usually include six historians, a political scientist, an archivist and an international law scholar.

“Some secrets about national security need to be kept — at least for a while. But secrets from back in the era of Lyndon Johnson and before hardly pose a threat to our safety, although they may threaten to embarrass policy-makers,” Kimball says.

The committee exists because the law demanded it, not because it was thought to be good public relations, says Kimball. It is further charged with making sure that “Foreign Relations of the United States” is a thorough, accurate and comprehensive documentation of foreign-policy decisions — necessitating access to all agencies’ records. Committee members have security clearances so they can examine any records being withheld from the public.

“The committee can’t demand to see today’s hot stuff. But if it is historic and starts getting about 25 years old, the time period for which the historians are now preparing volumes, then we can see the material.

“We don’t sit and look at specific documents, except to make a case about why it’s silly to close this or that type of document. So it’s not just one document that is opened, but dozens like it. We’re constantly trying to expand the universe of documentation,” Kimball adds.

The historical office of the State Department has 15 professional historians, all of whom work full time going through the archives, compiling lists of documents and then selecting documents for publication in the foreign relations series.

“We look at problems the historians have with the CIA, National Security Council and others, either getting access to the material guaranteed by law or getting the material declassified,” Kimball relates.

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