Giving Americans back their history may not rank with ending the war in Iraq or balancing the budget, but it should be high on the to-do list of the next president. Our declassification system has broken down. Historians are waiting an average of seven years for replies from presidential libraries to their Freedom of Information Act requests. The White House cannot locate millions of e-mail records created during the months immediately before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The problem goes far beyond the Bush administration or its immediate predecessors. Tens of thousands of pages of previously declassified top-secret documents that I read and photographed two years ago at the Naval Historical Center in Washington while researching a minute-by-minute narrative of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were closed to researchers in March pending an indefinite security "review."
The ostensible reason for pulling the records is the 1999 Kyl-Lott Amendment that requires the rescreening of millions of documents for supposedly sensitive nuclear secrets. But it is difficult to explain why the Navy waited nearly a decade before acting.
Some of these records date to World War II and have been pored over, copied and written about extensively. Many of the withdrawn documents can be viewed online. In addition to defying common sense, the reclassification initiative consumes valuable taxpayer resources that would otherwise be devoted to declassifying records. I am confident that nothing I saw while examining the Navy's missile crisis records could be of use to terrorists, but much would be of great interest to historians.
The now-closed documents helped me describe a secret plan by Nikita Khrushchev to wipe out the Guantanamo Bay naval base with nuclear-armed cruise missiles in the event of a U.S. invasion of Cuba. By combining Navy intelligence reports and interviews with Soviet veterans, I traced the deployment of a Soviet nuclear weapons convoy to within 15 miles of the naval base at the peak of the crisis, the night of Oct. 26-27. The U.S. government was blissfully unaware of the significance of the convoy, which intelligence reports depict as a movement of 1,000 or so "Russ/Sino/Cuban troops" together with "unidentified artillery." (The "Sino" part was ridiculous, of course. This was back when the U.S. intelligence community was still skeptical of the rift between Moscow and Beijing.)
The plan to destroy Guantanamo was closely coordinated with Cuba's current leader, Raul Castro, who had been dispatched to Oriente province by his brother, Fidel. Much of my reporting would have been impossible without the naval records that are now off-limits. According to the acting director of the historical center, Edward Marolda, the archives were closed on the instructions of the declassification manager at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Mary Anderson. Anderson told me through a spokesman that at least 5.4 million pages are affected by the review. "Reclassification manager" might be a better job description for Anderson.
Ironically, before the reclassification initiative, the Navy had a generally good record of opening its archives. The Air Force, by contrast, has yet to release a single document explaining the accidental overflight of the Soviet Union by an American U-2 spy plane on Oct. 27, 1962, the day that came to be known around the White House as "Black Saturday." An official Air Force history lists the mission by Capt. Charles Maultsby as "100 percent successful." Perhaps only a government record keeper benefiting from the cloak of secrecy could use such nonsense to describe an incident that caused Khrushchev to tell President John Kennedy that the violation of Soviet airspace could have triggered a nuclear war.
The classification of the Maultsby incident probably is maintained because the National Security Agency was intercepting the communications of Soviet air defenses as they sent up MiG fighters to down the errant U-2. But this detail has already been disclosed by retired Air Force generals in conversations with me and other researchers. And a determined researcher can often work around gaps in the records, rendering the secrecy pointless.In the meantime, morale is plummeting at the National Archives. Many knowledgeable archivists have quit or retired over the past couple of years. Those who remain speak fondly about Richard Nixon, a champion of glasnost compared with the Bush administration. Under Nixon, researchers gained access to most World War II records, in accordance with the 30-year waiting period for the release of all but the most sensitive secret documents. If the Nixon standards applied today, practically all the records relating to the Cuban missile crisis would be released. Instead, roughly half of these records are still inaccessible to researchers. Our history is locked away without any appreciable gains for the war on terrorism.
Michael Dobbs writes the Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. He is the author of "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War."