The CIA's History Problem is Our History Problem

The author David Lowenthal once noted that the "past is a foreign country." The past might be better described as being more like a moving target - always in transition and susceptible (and vulnerable) to becoming unrecognizable to what we once believed. And more often than not new revelations are disorientating and troubling.

Means for deriving and recreating the past can be traced in large part to the types of source materials - such as archives and records - available for examination. And once you focus your attention to these source materials (as I do as an archivist) it becomes evident that archives and records are one of the primary fuels that shape and legitimate society's memory and belief systems. These belief systems not only provide us with the means for understanding and making sense out of the historical past, but also inform much of the rough and tumble world of contemporary politics and struggles to influence public opinion and individual perceptions of reality. The key is recognizing that far from being static documents that hold stories and "truths" about the past, records and archives are highly dynamic objects of control and persuasion that can easily surface evidence of a manipulated past and present. And it is in this space where archives and records get interesting, problematic, and challenging.

Such is the case with recent news accounts in the Washington Post and the New York Times that in the late 1950s the CIA knew that Adolf Eichmann was living in Argentina and had a pretty close pseudonym for him (Clemens instead of the actual alias of Klement), but did nothing to bring him to justice. That the CIA sought the cooperation and protection of Nazis, even those guilty of war crimes, after World War Two to serve its Cold War struggles is not news. But the extent of these relationships and the depths the CIA went through to protect them is news. These disclosures have been made possible through the ongoing efforts of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG), launched over eight years ago by the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (Public Law 105-246). The key that unlocked this unsavory history has been the unparalleled access granted to the IWG into formerly secret government records and archives.

Concern over these disclosures extend beyond the sad facts surfaced by the IWG: such as official protection of Nazis residing in the United States and the CIA's post-war use of top Eichmann aides. They also include the entirely unconscionable fact that it has taken generations for the CIA to disclose this information, and only did so after a special act of Congress supplemented by years long battles to protect them from public knowledge. IWG member Thomas H. Baer pointed to such battles when he thanked the CIA for finally coming clean this past week. However, coming clean occurred only after "reversal of [a six year] policy of thinly veiled noncompliance" with the IWG's legal mandate and the ongoing efforts of members of Congress and (some) IWG members and staff in making an "ironclad case decrying CIAs misinterpretation of its [legal] obligations."

Why has the CIA taken so long to open such records and archives? And do the excuses proffered around protecting national security really hold any credible value? I think the answer to the second question must be no, of course not. As to the first question, that is a trickier one, but one must look beyond the legal loopholes that protect secret information for such inordinate periods and look to see what agendas are at play. Clearly one agenda is to provide a simplistic and comforting (and at times woefully inaccurate) past as a means of enabling an ignorant, but strongly held, patriotism as a form of social glue that (kind of) holds society together. But a simplistic and comforting and inaccurate past can only be realized through the unreasonable, though legal, controls granted to the CIA over its historical records and archives. And it is in these seemingly rationally derived controls that the past itself can be held hostage.

Archives and records are more than just what they would appear to be at face value. They are more than just static documentary objects that record "what happened." In fact, they themselves are desired objects of manipulation and control that go to the heart of what society believes and comes to believe. They often lie at the center of what narratives can be constructed, or not constructed, as a means for making sense or nonsense of our world.

The CIA's history problem vis a vis the IWG is in fact our history problem, as the information control maintained by the CIA over what history can be told shapes what we believe and legitimate as social and national memory. Such history, however, can be a charade that has little connection to what in fact occurred in the past. And it is here that the control of archives and records becomes a social problem out of which ignorance about the real past can flourish and infantilize the public.
At least we now have a clearer understanding of what our real history is with notorious Nazis. Unfortunately, the long-term control over the records and archives wrestled away from the CIA by the IWG leaves us to dwell on the question as to how do you invoke justice against ghosts?