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Distinguished Professor of History Blanche Cook speaks against government censorship and defends freedom of information in this recording from the PEN America event “Federal Control of Information and the National Security State.”



Introduction: I’m going to start with The Freedom of Information and I’m going to introduce Blanche Cooke to discuss this issue and what’s happening in this area.

Blanche Cook: I’m going to stand up, if that’s okay. It’s really very important to discuss freedom of information in terms of what journalists and historians do. It’s really not a question of a national security state and freedom of information, it’s really a question of censorship and political rights on every single level. One of the things I’d like to say very specifically is that my book could not have been written—this is a book that deals with disinformation, it deals with what I became obsessed with, namely the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954. I became obsessed with it because in many, many months in the Presidential Library in Abilene, the Eisenhower Library, I couldn’t find one single document that related to that event. And if I didn’t know that it happened, I would not know that it happened from going through literally miles of documents, and we deal here now with the fact of something called the Freedom of Information Act.

It was strengthened in 1975 after the Watergate scandals sort of exposed crimes in really essentially the ruling class establishment. Nixon had just gone too far even for, you know, some of his friends in the CIA, and we began then to have the Church Committee, the Pike Committee, and things began slowly to get exposed. I think it’s very important that the information we now have about FBI and CIA excesses would not have emerged—for example the COINTELPRO Program, dirty tricks, the sleazy, mean-minded activities that harassed every black organization, Martin Luther King, Jean Seberg, we all know these facts now. None of that would have ever seen the light of day in a journalist’s pen if it weren’t for an illegal break-in on the part of peace movement activists in Media, Pennsylvania that exposed the COINTELPRO operation.

Now, the government today is attempting to end our access to this information, to exempt the FBI, to exempt the CIA, to exempt the DIA, to exempt the Department of Defense. In addition to that, I’d like to emphasize one area—I said that my book could not have been written today. It was published in June but it couldn’t be written today. Why do I say such an outrageous thing? The reason is very simple. There is operating right now, in Washington, something called the CDC, which is the Classification Declassification Center, and the CDC was formed by Carter in an executive order to have actually more efficiency in the release of documents. Instead of more efficiency in the release of documents, the CDC is staffed almost entirely—well I should say entirely— by retired foreign service officers who were active in the 50s and 60s. And what they did—they were mandated to begin the classification declassification process with 1955. Instead, they unilaterally decided they had to go back to 1950. And what they did was to reclassify material that had been declassified by the State Department, by the CIA, saying well now, things have gotten too sensitive, things that have been desensitized have been resensitized, we want to reclassify this material. And as a result, in terms of the State Department’s foreign policy volumes—which were mandated by Congress to appear basically 20 years after the fact, (it is now 30 years after the fact) and the 1950s volumes have not appeared. They were scheduled to appear, 30 volumes were scheduled to appear. The CDC began its operation and 20 of those volumes were literally withheld in various stages of publication, that is to say in advanced page proof stage, some were even bound galleys, and some were bound volumes. They have been absolutely withheld, the whole series has been suspended. The volumes on Iran, the volumes on Central America, have been utterly closed.

Now, one volume was scheduled to come out in 2,020 pages. Big volume. Very important time, 1955 and 1956, the Soviet Union and Central Europe, you can imagine. That volume was reclassified so that if it came out now, 400 of those 2,000 pages would come out. Now, what are we hiding? My first interest, as a historian and a journalist, was in the peace movement of the First World War. And I was intrigued by the notion that the First World War-era activists had, that if we got into the First World War, we would preconize American society, that militarism would destroy democracy, and they had these wonderful phrases like “open covenants openly arrived at,” and they had other phrases, you know, about the freedom of information—they didn’t use that particular word—to know what governments were doing so there wouldn’t be secret treaties. Well, of course after World War II, all of their predictions have come utterly true, and we now live in an utterly militarized situation when it comes to access to information. And I’d like to say something very bluntly, which is a quotation from a man named Warren Susman, a historian. He said, in 1962, “Let’s face facts: Adolf Hitler had no more executive authority than John F. Kennedy.” Now we could say they used it differently, of course indeed they did, but when we talk about executive authority, who is in control, what access to information we have, that is really increasingly the situation, and we face a very perilous future.