National Security Archive (NSA)

National Security Archive (NSA)


* Library and archive of declassified U.S. documents obtained largely through the Freedom of Information Act

Not to be confused with the National Security Agency (America’s largest intelligence agency), the National Security Archive (NSA) based at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC is a self-described “non-governmental research institute and library” that “collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA].” The NSA also obtains some of its documents through Mandatory Declassification Review, presidential paper collections, congressional records, and court testimony. These materials consist of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to American national security, foreign policy, intelligence, and economic policies. NSA staff members systematically track U.S. government agencies and federal records repositories for “documents that either have never been released before, or that help to shed light on the decision-making process of the U.S. government and provide the historical context underlying those decisions.” The Archive regularly publishes portions of its collections on microfiche, the World Wide Web, CD-Rom, and in books.

Established in 1984 by radical anti-war leftists from the Vietnam War era, the NSA is a favorite resource cited by proponents of “openness” in American foreign policy, who advocate that the United States stop gathering intelligence on its enemies. As a research entity, the NSA is the beneficiary of the painstaking work done by its sister group at GWU, the Center for National Security Studies, which is the creation of Morton Halperin, whose entire public career has been devoted to undermining U.S. intelligence efforts. Halperin is currently the Director of U.S. Advocacy for George Soros‘s Open Society Institute.

The CIA has been voluntarily declassifying documents since it released more than 9 million pages of Office of Strategic Services (the WWII-era predecessor of the CIA) records in the 1980s. But established procedures for declassifying records under voluntary or non-voluntary programs have been co-opted by political interests hostile to U.S. government clandestine activity. In the vanguard of such groups, the NSA has initiated more than 18,000 FOIA requests since its inception. FOIA requires federal agencies to disclose records unless they are classified or otherwise legally non-public.

Since 1995, classified documents have fallen under Executive Order (EO) 12958, which removed the declassification process from the realm of national security considerations and placed it within the reach of political groups such as the NSA. After Halperin was appointed as a top assistant to Defense Secretary Les Aspin in 1993, declassification procedures were promptly reviewed, culminating in the issuance of EO 12958. This Executive Order diminished agency declassification authority and opened up the FOIA review process in a most dramatic way. There is no longer a presumption of confidentiality for sensitive security or foreign policy issues. The burden is on federal agencies like the CIA to review, on a case-by-case basis, each classification decision. Petty requirements in EO 12958 constrict the CIA and become fodder for challenges by groups such as the NSA and the American Civil Liberties Union to overturn classification decisions on the basis of legal and procedural technicalities.

This has resulted in conflicting criteria for declassification and an ever-growing bureaucratic bloat to meet the flood of declassification requests and challenges. The NSA makes more than 2,500 “public service” requests for documents and information annually. The CIA now employs 350 people to review and declassify such documents. In total, it receives over 6,000 FOIA and other declassification review requests every year.

EO 12958 also established the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), which, pursuant to a 1999 Justice Department ruling, can legally overrule CIA classification authority and responsibility. There is no precedent, either in the U.S. or in any foreign government, for this level of declassification of clandestine activity. As a result of this Executive Order, intelligence agents past, present, and future (foreign or domestic) who might be named in the newly declassified documents are now at risk of reprisal from their enemies. Foreign governments are increasingly reluctant to cooperate with American intelligence agencies for fear that their actions and agents may one day be publicly exposed. The same applies for any individuals or groups that may be able to help the U.S., or themselves, by aiding American intelligence agencies. This is precisely what the NSA desires.

A perusal of the NSA website confirms that it is not an unbiased repository of historical documents. Headlined links on its website include:

(a) “Did NATO Win the Cold War?“: This file lists mostly old documents that putatively weaken the claim that U.S.-led NATO containment and America’s military buildup ultimately ended the Cold War and protected the United States from Soviet Russia’s expansionist goals. The file ignores contrary recent testimony from senior ex-Soviet officials stating that NATO containment and the U.S. military buildup did in fact cause the USSR to concede Cold War victory to the United States.

(b) “Nixon: Brazil helped rig the Uruguayan elections (1971): Documents reveal U.S. efforts to influence Uruguayan election“: Even assuming that this is true, it is not necessarily something nefarious. The United States has done much more than influence elections before, such as basically running Japan and Germany for ten years following World War II.  (c) “Argentine Military Believed U.S. Gave Go-ahead for Dirty War. New State Department documents show conflict between Washington and US Embassy in Buenos Aires over signals to the military dictatorship at height of repression in 1976“: Commentator N.R. Monroe writes, “Imagine an alternative headline that is just as plausible from a reading of the documents in question: ‘U.S. Government Struggles to Contain Communist Terrorists Amid Concerns Over Argentine Government Tactics.’”

(d) “State Department Opens Files on Argentina’s Dirty War. Documents describe key death squad under former army chief Galtieri“: Again, says Monroe, an alternative headline could justifiably have read: “CIA Opens Files on Argentina’s Dirty War. Documents describe key leftist terrorist groups under communist support from Soviet Russia.”

The public, however, does not have access to any documents that would make a case for Monroe’s suggested headlines, because by declassifying such documents the government would compromise the sources and methods used to obtain them. There is thus a bias at the NSA in favor of disclosing the unpleasant side of covert operations without disclosing the reasons for them. The NSA can argue that it has requested FOIA access to all documents relating to a particular subject (in an effort to be “balanced”), but that its requests have not been met — and that, therefore, the selective documentation in its archive is technically not the NSA’s doing. The Archive can say, in effect, “_This is government documentation — you be the judge__.”

_Notably absent from the NSA archives are the monumentally important Venona Files and Mitrokhin Archives, which reveal how thoroughly the Soviets infiltrated the U.S. government during the Cold War. The omission of any mention of these items debunks the illusion that the NSA is even-handed.

Nor is there any documentation on the NSA website of the most egregious recent lapse of U.S. National Security prior to 9/11: the stealing of nuclear secrets by the Communist Chinese during the Clinton Administration. A Congressional Committee headed by Fred Thompson (R-TN) produced copious evidence indicting the entire Democratic National Committee apparatus in abetting a massive shakedown of U.S. security. A Los Alamos scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was found by the FBI to have downloaded the equivalent of 400,000 pages of nuclear design and testing information. Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh testified, “…the Department of Justice and the FBI stand by each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment of Dr. Lee. Each of those counts could be proven in December 1999, and each of them could be proven today.” Lee was subsequently released because the FBI could not reveal in court the evidence indicting Lee without compromising key national security information and sources.

According to the NSA, a long list of recent international mishaps are attributable to American neglect. Most prominent among these was the Rwanda genocide of 1994 (the NSA charges that Americans were willful “bystanders” during that calamity).

The NSA is currently involved in efforts “to sponsor freedom of information legislation in the nations of Central Europe, Central America and elsewhere, and is committed to finding ways to provide technical and other services that will allow archives and libraries overseas to introduce appropriate records management systems into their respective institutions.”

A notable NSA staffer is Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh, Director of the organization’s Chile Documentation Project, which was responsible for the release of more than 16,000 secret U.S. records on the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and “Washington’s role in the violent overthrow of the Allende government and the advent of the military regime to power.” Kornbluh formerly worked for the Institute for Policy Studies. In 1985 he arranged for Senators Tom Harkin and John Kerry to fly to Nicaragua to give propaganda support to the Sandinistas only days before a scheduled congressional vote on President Ronald Reagan’s requested aid for Nicaragua’s anti-Communist Contras.

The Archive’s $2.5 million yearly budget comes from publication revenues, contributions from individuals, and grants from foundations such as the Arca Foundation, the Blue Moon Fund, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Compton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the General Service Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John Merck Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Samuel Rubin Foundation, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Thomas S. Blanton has been the NSA’s Executive Director since 1992. Blanton is a founding editorial board member of, the virtual network of international freedom-of-information advocates.

Much of this profile is adapted from the article “National Insecurity Archive,” written by N.R. Monroe and published by on October 22, 2002.

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