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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Q&A: National Security Archive policy director talks declassified Kissinger documents

The National Security Archive in Gelman Library.
Courtesy of Anya Melyakova
The National Security Archive in Gelman Library.

Updated: Dec. 12, 2023, at 6:49 p.m.

Following the death of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger last month, the National Security Archive published a “Declassified Obituary” of the late U.S. leader.

The National Security Archive, which is housed in Gelman Library, garnered significant media attention for its obituary with a series of explanations and documents that dove into Kissinger’s actions and the corresponding records to prove his complicity. The obituary featured documents that revealed Kissinger’s role in executing former President Richard Nixon’s horrific bombing campaign of Cambodia during the Vietnam War between 1969 and 1973, his refusal to condemn the genocide in Bangladesh by Pakistan’s military and his support of right-wing junta governments in Latin America.

“Together, these collections constitute an accessible, major repository of records on one of the most consequential U.S. foreign policymakers of the 20th century,” the obituary states.

The Hatchet’s Fiona Riley sat down with Lauren Harper, the archive’s director of public policy and government affairs, to discuss the archive’s research and Kissinger’s legacy.

Riley: What is the National Security Archive?

Harper: We are a team of primarily historians. I’m one of the few folks there who’s not a historian by trade but who used something called the FOIA, or the Freedom of Information Act, to go after historically significant documents.

Riley: Where is the National Security Archive housed and since when?

Harper: We’re located at GW’s Gelman Library, we’re on the seventh floor. We’re independent, so we don’t get any funding from GW or anything like that, but we’ve been housed at Gelman since 1995 and have a great relationship with the University. The organization itself has been around since ‘85, but we’ve been at Gelman since ‘95.

Riley: Why did the National Security Archive move to Gelman Library in ‘95?

Harper: We received a lot of interest from each of the main local universities, but the connection we found with GW was immediate, initially through President Steve Trachtenberg and the librarian at the time, Jack Siggins, and the synergy with the Elliott School, the History Department and others on campus made it a really attractive place for us. 1995 was also the year Gelman undertook a major upgrade of its research collections — a result of joining the prestigious Association of Research Libraries — and the National Security Archive’s unique declassified documents added major value to Gelman’s holdings and brought global attention to the University.

Riley: How long after a FOIA request is filed does it take to receive the information?

Harper: It can really take decades because we’re filing requests for things that are really sensitive. The Kissinger stuff is a great example. Agencies divide their FOIA requests, the ones they receive, into both simple and complex. Even simple ones usually take a year or two to respond.

Riley: When did the National Security Archive begin requesting information on Kissinger?

Harper: The real genesis started, I’d say, in 2001. So, Kissinger is a neat person for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that he did that was unique is that he took all of his official records from the State Department and basically made a gift of them to the Library of Congress. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he did this because he didn’t want them to be subject to FOIA.

Riley: How did the National Security Archive obtain the Kissinger documents if they were housed in the Library of Congress, given it is part of the legislative branch and not subject to FOIA requests?

Harper: What we ended up doing was drafting a complaint that we were basically going to sue the State Department and the National Archives and Records Administration, and basically say that “You allowed Kissinger to get away with violating the Federal Records Act, so not the FOIA, but the Federal Records Act, and you allowed him to take government property and basically take them off-site and make them inaccessible.”

Riley: How long did it take for the Kissinger documents to return to the federal government?

Harper: That whole process took four years, from 2001 to 2004. It won the transfer of about 15,500 records back to the property of the federal government.

Riley: Once the documents were in possession of the federal government, were the documents the National Security Archive requested through a FOIA received all at once?

Harper: There’s been rolling releases of these records for a long time. It takes a really long time, and that’s one of the benefits of doing a FOIA from a historic organization as opposed to, let’s say a news media where there’s oftentimes more deadlines. We can, to a certain extent, be willing to wait for the release of the documents.

Riley: What makes the Kissinger documents so valuable?

Harper: His insistence on recording nearly everything he said himself, or what was said to him, has resulted in an astonishing amount of primary sources. He tried to keep the recordings private until five years after he died by gifting them to the Library of Congress, but the archive threatened to sue both the State Department and the National Archives and Records Administration for failing to preserve the documents as required by the Federal Records Act. Now, the public can more accurately judge Kissinger’s legacy — with his own words.

Riley: In your opinion, what is the most interesting Kissinger document obtained through FOIA and why?

Harper: I would say it’s a June 10, 1976, memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti. At the time, Argentine security forces were carrying out vast human rights violations after their successful coup. The coup was also part of U.S.-backed Operation Condor, which our analyst Carlos Osorio has worked tirelessly to document for decades. Regarding Argentine security forces’ work to stamp out dissent and terrorize scientists, labor leaders, students and politicians, Kissinger said, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures.” For me, this is indicative of not only Kissinger’s disregard for human rights but how his policies contributed to an effort to actually institutionalize human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. diplomatic efforts.

Riley: Do GW students have access to the documents obtained through FOIA requests?

Harper: These are all available to GW students, all of our records. The majority of them are available through the digital National Security Archive, which all GW students have access to.

Riley: How can GW students get involved in the National Security Archive’s work?

Harper: We take on research assistants and interns virtually every semester and over the summer. RAs are usually grad students, but interns can be both. Sometimes course credits are part of the arrangement. Students just need to send an email to [email protected] and let us know what kinds of projects they’re interested in.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Read the National Security Archive’s obituary here.

This post was updated to correct the following:

A prior version of this post referred to the National Security Archive as the “National Archive.” We regret this error.

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