A big part of our history is incomplete, and the lack of an effective declassification program is a big part of the reason.
The last time large scale information on intelligence history was made available was content from World War II, and historians say we’re at a crisis point in the study of intelligence history because we have needed a new declassification system for some time.
“It’s become incredibly complicated, and become something of a nightmare because there’s millions upon millions of documents awaiting declassification review, and the presumption is, it’s got to be kept secret unless we can be assured it’s okay to be released,” intelligence historian Stephen Budianski said.
The problem? Well, that information is crucial to our understanding of how the nation has dealt with past obstacles. In 1996, the National Intelligence Agency released millions of pages of information from World War II, especially about the role of codes and code-breakers.
“It was the first time we had access to original documents about that story,” Budianski said. “It really changed our understanding of history, and that decision was made pretty simply. It was made at the top, NSA said we’re not going to go through everyone single one of these million plus pages of documents”
Understanding history depends on having access to documents, Budianski said, especially when the role of intelligence has been enormous in conflicts in Korea and the Cold war.
“You can’t write an accurate military, diplomatic, presidential history without knowing this part of history,” Budianski said. “This isn’t just sort of an academic concern, this isn’t just historians wanting to feather their own nests, this is things that affect our whole understand of how wars were conducted, why one side won and the other lost, how presidential decisions were made.”
It’s not just military history that this effects, Budianski elaborated, it’s that every generation learns from the past.
“We’ve seen time and again, these leaders come in, and when it comes to the use of intelligence, because of the secrecy they’re getting on-the-job training, and they’re not having the benefit of learning from reading about history and I think that’s extremely important,” Budianski said.
There’s still a lot of information that is yet to be declassified, information from the Korean War and the Cold War. So what can and should be done?
“What has worked is when someone at the top has said, basically, look this is ridiculous,” Budianski said. “So we’re just going to take all these boxes piled up here and say, ‘it’s all going to the National Archives and scholars and writers can have access to them’ .”
Budianski recently spoke at the National Cryptologic Museum on declassification policy. You can find more information about his lecture here. More information about the National Cryptologic Museum can be found here.