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  • Conducting Post–World War II National Security Research in Executive Branch Records: A Comprehensive Guide
  • William Burr
James E. David , Conducting Post–World War II National Security Research in Executive Branch Records: A Comprehensive Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. 266 pp. $84.95.

The vast expansion of the U.S. national security bureaucracy after World War II involved a host of agencies that generated enormous quantities of records in all sorts of formats (paper, electronic, film, photo, etc.). Some of this was routine paperwork of no lasting value, but a significant volume, much of which was classified secret or above, is of enduring historical importance. For researchers interested in Cold War-era U.S government diplomatic, military, and intelligence activities, the proliferation of records along with the problem of classification has created major problems. Simply identifying, much less locating and getting access to, relevant documentation can become a daunting task. To aid perplexed researchers, James David has produced [End Page 128] a reference work that is the first major effort to chart the universe of classified and declassified federal records pertaining to national security policy. A researcher at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, David is well known for the prodigious energy he has devoted to comprehending the huge volume of security-classified historical documentation.

David begins his book with a succinct and helpful overview of federal records management and classification/declassification policies, including the executive orders that, to varying degrees, have provided for systematic review of classified historical documentation. As the author points out, the recent history of historical declassification has been a checkered one. Encouragingly, the relative openness heralded by Bill Clinton's Executive Order (EO) 12958 in April 1995 facilitated significant progress in expediting the review of the huge backlog of historical records. Yet EO 12958 soon foundered on the shoals of agency resistance. David passes over the political dynamics that enabled the Energy Department and congressional Republicans to constrain EO12958 in the name of nuclear secrecy, but he amply shows the results. Of course no one favors exposing nuclear weapons-design information to public scrutiny, but the resulting legislation (the so-called "Kyl Amendment") undercut historical declassification programs, thereby forcing agencies to return to unworkable page-by-page declassification reviews and enabling the Energy Department to reclassify archival documents that had been released in previous years. The executive order (13292) issued by George W. Bush in March 2003 to amend EO 12958 will undoubtedly exacerbate the worrisome situation described by David. The Bush administration's relatively small budgets for historical declassification and its emphasis even before September 2001 on greater secrecy suggest that the backlog of classified historical records will be an ever greater problem.

Most of David's book amounts to an inventory of two categories of federal historical records: those that are available at the National Archives (and to a lesser extent, smaller official archives and the Library of Congress); and those that remain under the control of the agencies that created them. Looking at individual Record Groups (RGs), David itemizes the Department of State, Department of Defense (DoD), and National Security Council records, among others, that are open at the National Archives or at presidential libraries and the records that remain closed, although still subject to declassification requests. His most extensive inventory, however, is of agency records that have not been deposited at the National Archives and are stored instead at the National Archives warehouse in Suitland, Maryland, known as the Washington National Records Center (WNRC). Except for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency, and National Reconnaissance Office, most federal agencies in the national security sphere, especially the Defense Department and the uniformed services, keep historically significant records in the huge storage space at Suitland.

David devotes well over 100 pages of his book to a description of military records that are still classified. A perusal of this inventory will dismay researchers because such a huge volume of valuable material on Cold War history remains inaccessible. This is [End Page 129] especially true of the records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the historical review of these records has stagnated for years. Secret and top-secret...