WikiLeaks and the Historical Community

News Abroad

K.C. Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign relations and politics, including All the Way with LBJ: The 1964 Presidential Campaign and Congress and the Cold War.

Good historians sift through mounds of documents, identifying the critical ones and providing context for the rest. So the latest Wikileaks document dump might have produced a boon for informed historical commentary. That hasn’t been the case.

Many aspects of the affair, of course, have been well analyzed by figures outside of the historical profession. Take, for instance, the lamentable if probably correct observation from Peter Spiro of Opinio Juris, who noted that the leak might mean the decline of diplomatic cables: “This episode will surely make cables look less attractive still. It’s one thing to understand that your work will come to light twenty-five years hence, when you (and your interlocutors) will either be dead or retired, too old much to care; or else flattered to see your handiwork become the stuff of history. It’s another to have to worry about something being disclosed that might affect your ability to function in your next post (or whether you’ll get one at all).”

Nor do we need a historian to ask the embarrassing, if on-point, question that Jeffrey Goldberg posed in The Atlantic: “How does the United States Government store its secrets? In shoeboxes?”

That said, a greater historical perspective would have improved most media commentary to date. Too much of the coverage has focused on peripheral issues (notably, catty commentary about various world leaders from either U.S. diplomats or other world leaders, as relayed by U.S. diplomats); confirming the already-known (the Gulf Arab states want forceful action against Iran); or advancing pre-existing internet debates (such as this post observing, correctly, on how the leaked documents undermine Andrew Sullivan’s newfound anti-Israel fanaticism).

Beyond the obvious points (providing context and historical background), a more robust presence from diplomatic and political historians could inform the WikiLeaks controversy in three ways:

    (1) By reminding people of what the leaked cables do not include. Peter Beinart hinted at this point shortly after the leak, when he described the document dump as “what the Starr Report was to presidential politics—fun, in a voyeuristic sort of way, revealing, but not about important things, and ultimately, more trouble than it is worth.” Beinart was faulting his fellow journalists for their focus on titillating elements from the leak, but the comment applies more broadly, since (in contrast to the Iraq documents leak, which brought to the fore considerable previously unknown information) the WikiLeaks material contained no material at the highest levels of classification. Predicting ahead three decades to the publication of the 2006-8 Foreign Relations of the United States, I suspect that few of these leaked documents will make it into the FRUS volumes, since the more significant documents of U.S. foreign policy—NSC and White House meeting notes, high-level intelligence analyses, Pentagon policymaking items—avoided the WikiLeaks reach. The WikiLeaks documents give at best an incomplete picture of recent U.S. foreign policy, and at worst will yield an inaccurate one.

    (2) By using the perspective of the past to discourage people from over-reaction. James Mann raised this point in The New Republic, pooh-poohing the cassandras who suggest that the document dump could mean the end of diplomacy. Mann noted that similar concerns greeted the Freedom of Information Act, which hardly has brought an end to secret diplomatic negotiations. In the end, Mann predicted, “the foreign policy bureaucracy will adjust, as it has before.”

    (3) By urging observers to focus on how the leak exposes faults in the structure of U.S. foreign policy. An emphasis on the relationship between structure and policymaking was a key theme of the late Ernest R. May’s work; and May’s voice would have allowed for more attention to what this affair says about shortcomings both in the kind of information U.S. diplomats gather and the national security implications of the U.S. government’s apparent failure to fully adapt to the new technological era.

It’s no secret why we haven’t seen more commentary from U.S. political and diplomatic historians in the media. First of all, of course, the last generation has seen a considerable pruning of these fields within history departments nationally. And the fields have changed in ways that make their approach of little use in analyzing the WikiLeaks documents. As pedagogically trendy as “re-visioning” U.S. political history might be, confining the field to analyses that fit into a race/class/gender worldview has produced scholarship that is of no help to either journalists or the general public seeking to understand the WikiLeaks material, or any other significant contemporary foreign policy debate. And the more recent emphasis to re-fashion diplomatic history as “international” history, so as to explore such inherently transnational issues as disease or population control, likewise will do little to illuminate the more traditional, state-based diplomatic issues raised by the WikiLeaks dump.

In short, while historians have the freedom to define the discipline as they choose, and to avoid any and all outside pressure as the discipline avoids fields branded as “traditional,” that decision comes with a cost: it makes academics less relevant to public policy debates in which previous generations of historians might have played an important, and productive, role

One final point: this document dump, to a greater extent than the previous ones, should settle once and for all the debate over the excessive use of classification in national security documents. Nearly all of the WikiLeaks documents appear to have been “over-classified,” as the AHA, SHAFR, and other historians’ organizations long have suggested. Unfortunately, I doubt that the resolution of the intellectual debate will yield a policy change: despite candidate Obama’s promise for greater transparency, the political imperatives for national security secrecy remain too strong.

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Maarja Krusten - 12/4/2010

I have not looked at the site or viewed any of the improperly disclosed (leaked) records. Any discussion of them derives from my reading my local newspaper (The Washington Post).

The Library of Congress explains the federal position on this at

A journalist offers his thoughts regarding job seekers and the unauthorized disclosure:

"No job if you link to Wikileaks, warns Columbia"

james joseph butler - 12/2/2010

Hallelujah, maybe America will start paying attention. Maarja no one cares. We spend trillions(in terms of net costs) overseas to what end? Of course I recognize that few are paying attention even now, Dancing With the STARS is far more important.

You've said that we need to look at these "cables" within the teacher room, work place freedom to express, environment. I agree. Except those are our soldiers, our trillions, our image, our hours, wasted at the airport waiting in line to be searched because of our idiotic foreign policy. Americans need to know as much as possible about our self-destructive pro Old-Testament pro Fortune 500 foreign policy. Good people; Afghan, Pakistani, and Texan die because of ignorance. Wikileaks attacks ignorance. Wikileaks empowers me.

Maarja Krusten - 12/1/2010

In addition to the articles to which Dr. Johnson linked, here’s an interesting discussion of confidential communications. http://www.courierpostonline.com/article/20101130/NEWS05/101130006/1001/rss

Having offered my reaction to Dr. Johnson’s essay, here are a couple of suggestions of my own for historians.

(1) PARTNERSHIP LEADS TO GREATER STRENGTH: Look for public sector partners. Tap into their expertise. Many of us would be happy to help you. (An ethos of serving the public interest and all that.) You’ll be stronger and more effective if you reach out to insider experts. Not just behind the scenes but also in your public writing.

Why? One example. As an insider, I just shrugged and said “meh” when I saw Dr. Johnson write, “Nearly all of the WikiLeaks documents appear to have been ‘over-classified,’ as the AHA, SHAFR, and other historians’ organizations long have suggested.” It’s not that I reject the notion that over classification can occur. (Although just reading the executive order on classification suggests in and of itself that the materials included some properly classified information.).

It’s that Dr. Johnson cites AHA, SHAFR and historians’ organizations. His argument would have had more resonance for those of us on the inside had he *also* drawn on what an expert such as Bill Leonard (the former NARA ISOO director who tangled with Dick Cheney) said about over (and under) classificaiton, while holding office (http://www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/leonard061504.pdf) and later.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences of opinion in Govland. Most fed historians I know support FOIA. However, the late Dr. Eduard Mark (Air Force historian), once argued that FOIA “should be abolished, to be replaced by a strict 30-year role. This will reduce the temptation to destroy records or else not keep them in the first place. Declassifiers, now inundated by mostly frivolous requests under the FOIA, could then resume progressive declassification of record groups, which has all but stopped.”

(2) A MORE WHOLISTIC APPROACH: The stereotype of academics as arrogant, ivory tower dwelling, unpatriotic elites who can’t relate to “real Americans” that Dr. Benton cautioned about certainly is unwarranted, although every profession has its positive models and its weak reeds. But what does come through in many discussions of records is a largely tunnel vision sense of “more, more, how can I get my stuff.” If you really want more stuff, don’t overlook some of the image issues that inhibit advocacy.

Dr. Mark often wrote about a “crisis” of record keeping in the electronic age. He noted that “with only the rarest exceptions historians are so narcissisticly engaged in their own research that they care not a whit for their professional descendants. The issue of declassification arouses them, predictably, but the usual attitude toward the problem of record-keeping is, ‘I've got mine. After all, the Eisenhower Administration kept good records.’ Even organizations that style themselves champions of declassification, and which, like so-many bloodhounds, will pursue records under the FOIA to prove that [t}he United States was beastly to their favorite third-world dictators, have remained resolutely indifferent to the crisis of record-keeping. They have theirs - or will in time.”

Exaggerated? Sure. Some kernels of truth? You betcha. A solution? Looking at access issues more wholistically.

Maarja Krusten - 11/30/2010

Thanks for posting an academic historian’s perspective on this. Very interesting. As you might imagine, insiders have a somewhat different view of some of this. Reasonable people can disagree, as they say. I start a month-long Christmas vacation this evening so I have more time than usual to share my views.

You and I actually do agree on one thing. It is unfortunate that there aren’t many diplomatic and political and presidential historians. That’s not to say other areas of study aren’t useful. And there are topics, such as the civil rights era, for which good historians nicely blend political and social history in their narratives. A broader range of voices among historians with expertise on how the government works might help fill in the gaps left by, well, let’s say Glenn Beck’s chalkboard talks. Easier said than done, of course. Historians first have to convince the broad public they are worth hearing out. With the chatter about unpatriotic elites that fills some message boards and portions of the air waves, that isn’t so easy. I know from working on records issues over the decades from inside the government that not all outside historians make good allies for those of us on the inside. Getting through to the larger public from within the academy can be a challenge, in part because of what Thomas Benton noted in his CHE article, “Why They Hate Us Part 2” http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Do-They-Hate-Us-Part-2/125066/

Now to the areas where I see some things differently than you. Jeffrey Goldberg’s question seems silly to me. I’m not convinced any historian actually would ask it. Whether inside or outside the government, historians rely on data and facts. Why would they snark as Mr. Goldberg, a journalist, did? Certainly not when there is plenty of information available about the handling of cables, such as Joshua Keating’s “Why Do Diplomats Still Send Cables? “ Foreign Policy, November 29, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/11/29/why_do_diplomats_still_send_cables?hpid=topnews

As for James Mann’s article, I found it downright embarrassing. (The link doesn’t appear in your article. For readers who want to check it out, it is
http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/79489/keeping-secrets-even-wikileaks ) Not for anyone at the State Department, but for Dr. Mann. I know many people responsible for handling FOIA requests at various departments and agencies within the government – most of us federal historians do, of course. Depending on how closely we’re involved in FOIA issues, federal historians know a lot about how exemptions are applied and public disclosure requests processed. One thing Dr. Mann overlooks is the role of case law and precedent in FOIA. (The FOIA Updates issued by the Department of Justice are available to the public, actually, so one can trace a lot of that from outside.) And the effect that the knowledge that there may be judicial review has on the process. Of course, I did disclosure review at NARA, as did my late sister, who was a supervisor in the unit that reviewed security classified State Department records for disclosure.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I cringed when I saw Mann write, “The hapless State Department officials assigned to handle Freedom of Information requests—who are generally not the most talented, up-and-coming people in the department—seem to delight in releasing only the most trivial and meaningless cables, and in doing so after a book has already been published.” Too reminiscent of the mud flinging that Richard Nixon’s attorney once did at us at the National Archives, back in the day. To Nixon, the reputations of federal employees may have meant little. It was easy for Nixon’s lawyer to hint at incompetence when they didn’t like the “too liberal” results of our disclosure review. One would hope historians wouldn’t follow the Nixon model in speculating about competennce and what happens and why. There are enough people out there on talk radio and cable (Beck, Limbaugh, et al.) throwing mud at feds as it is, no more speculation needed, that’s for sure.

As to the chilling effect, easy to dismiss it from outside but . . . . John Earl Haynes said in 2001, “Pre-emptive sanitization of the record is not episodic but nearly universal among policy making officials and their staffs since the mid-1970s.” He explained how he once worked as a government official. Haynes noted, “After the passage of freedom of information laws that opened these records either immediately or after only a brief period of restricted access, our practices changed. Our discussions became largely verbal supported only by ephemeral personal notes immediately discarded and the written record contained only technical documents and our final decisions with the supporting rationale. We cared greatly for our policy goals which we regarded as in the public interest and were determined that nothing would exist in the record of use to our political opponents or those of the media seeking controversy. We were not at all unusual. In my post-political role as a acquirer of historical records, the drastic diminution of the richness of the record between those created before the mid-1970s and later is obvious.

The practical result of legally mandated rapid disclosure of the records of policy makers has been to impoverish the historical record. Records not created are not available, ever, for historical research.”

Written deliberations won’t chill entirely, of course. But access most likely will tighten. NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office (of which Maureen Dowd wrote “archivists are the new macho heroes” in Washington when it challenged Vice President Dick Cheney) reportedly will be involved in reviewing how classified is handled. (See report in today’s Washington Post.) I know ISOO’s director. My late sister was his mentor and supervisor early in his NARA career. Good man, I predict he’ll do a very good job in the NARA portion of the review President Obama has requested.

Finally, it is about country, above all, not about Dr. Mann and his research needs (or those of any researcher), although the requests submitted by scholars should and most likely will continue to be handled routinely, according to caselaw and precedents.