Wresting Secrets from the U.S. Government
The National Security Archive is a repository for intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Its contents include papers related to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iran-Contra affair --and, more recently, to pre-9/11 warnings about Osama bin Laden. It is led by Tom Blanton.
Other segments from the episode on January 5, 2006
DATE January 5, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tom Blanton discusses the National Security Archive
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Tom Blanton, has become an expert in finding out government secrets,
secrets that he thinks will help keep government honest without sacrificing
our security. We're talking about documents pertaining to the war on
terrorism, the strategy for dealing with Saddam Hussein, how we started
bombing North Vietnam, Iran Contra, Henry Kissinger, Latin American death
squads, not to mention the meeting between President Nixon and Elvis Presley.
Blanton is the executive director of the National Security Archive, a research
institute and library that collects and publishes declassified documents
obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It's located at George
Washington University. The archive is celebrating its 20th anniversary. We
invited Blanton to talk about some of the most significant documents they've
gotten declassified. I asked him, first, if the archive has played a role in
the recent revelation that President Bush authorized the National Security
Agency to wiretap without warrants the international phone calls of American
citizens speaking with suspected terrorists.
Mr. TOM BLANTON (Executive Director, National Security Archive): So far the
role we've played is just public and reporters getting our initials confused.
They're the big NSA. They have a huge multibillion-dollar budget. We're the
little NSA. Actually, we avoid even using the initials. We call ourselves
the Archive because they're the folks who can wiretap your cell phone, who can
pick up packets of digital information off Internet nodes, who can--who devour
hundreds of millions of intercepts every year. And we're the folks who file a
couple thousand Freedom of Information requests each year and try to get at
the policy decisions that are shrouded by secrecy.
I think that's the heart of this wiretapping story because there are real
secrets, technical secrets, about how the government can go into an Internet
node or a fiber-optic cable or a router and bring back together all those
little packets of digital information, ones and zeroes, and put them together
and give them to translators and code-breakers and make sense out of them.
And those are some real secrets. Those are capabilities that if they were
exposed we might lose them. But the secret that isn't a real secret that
doesn't damage our security is the existence of this program period and the
secrecy that's shrouded this thing for the last three years was clearly to
prevent a public debate about what's the right balance, what's the right
amount of power we should let the president have in the time of war? What's
the role of Congress, the public, the courts? And that's what the White House
prevented and it's breaking loose now.
GROSS: But the president has argued that revealing the existence of this
secret wiretap program tips off people linked with terrorists and tips off the
terrorists themselves about what we're doing, that we might be tapping their
phones, and that makes it harder for us to be able to get information from
them through wiretaps.
Mr. BLANTON: It's no secret that our government's trying to wiretap people's
phones. Everybody in the Mafia for the last 50 years has known that the
government's trying to wiretap their phones, and terrorists around the world
have, you know, buy and sell phones at--public phone cards at low markets in
order to avoid being tracked. And drug smugglers use pay phones and rolls of
quarters. I mean, this is a--it's what you might call a public secret. What
really the White House prevented was people questioning what they're up to.
GROSS: Didn't the National Security Archive do any work in helping to
declassify the documents that revealed the National Security Agency wiretap
Mr. BLANTON: There's almost nothing that has been declassified yet. We've
got requests in but there's only literally I think two actual documents that
have been released. One is a letter from Senator Rockefeller to Vice President
Cheney, saying, you know, `I can--I can't even evaluate this program, much
less endorse it because of all the secrecy around it,' and then the
majority--the minority leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi, just released her
letter, similar letter, to the head of the National Security Agency, saying,
`What's going on here? You guys are expanding the targets of your
wiretapping, but you're not really giving us a good basis for that, or a good
explanation. What's going on?' Well, those queries, those concerns by
members of congressmen have been classified for three, four years, it's kept
the Congress, the courts and the public from having this debate about `Is
this right? Does this fit with American values, is this what we want to be
doing on the war on terrorism, or is this going too far?'
GROSS: Now you mention that there are some secrets, for instance, with the
secret wiretapping program, that could really undermine our efforts to catch
Mr. BLANTON: That's right.
GROSS: And that would include--you mention the programs that we use to tap
and interpret foreign calls. Where do you draw the line? How do you
determine what documents you're going to go after and try to declassify and
what you think is really none of our business, what you think needs to
actually be kept secret from the public for the sake of our own safety?
Mr. BLANTON: I think there's a pretty commonsense line you can draw about
what's a real secret and what's a fake secret. And the real secrets are ones
that you and I and just about any other person with common sense would
recognize a design of a chemical warhead or a nuclear weapon, the identity of
some intelligence asset who'd be shot or whose family would be tortured if it
was known they were passing secrets or, you know, the bottom line in our
government of some diplomatic or trade negotiation. Those are real secrets.
But too many of the secrets are the fake secrets, and I'll just give you one
example. Republican Governor Tom Kean of formerly New Jersey, who headed the
9-11 Commission, was looking at the government's most top-secret terrorism and
counterterrorism information in that investigation. What really happened on
9/11? Really recent stuff, I mean, current stuff. He said that 75 percent of
what he saw that was classified shouldn't have been classified. And there are
lots of other officials who've given similar kind of estimates ranging from 50
to 90 percent. I mean, last year, Congressman Chris Shays really pushed one
of Don Rumsfeld's deputies and said, `Come on. Come on. We all know there's
too much classification going on. Give me a number. How much is it?' And
she kind of grudgingly admitted, `Well, kind of 50/50.'
Well, if you know 50 percent of what's classified shouldn't be, then you gotta
ask the question: Is it keeping us safe, those fake secrets? And that was
the number one finding of the 9-11 Commission, that it was the secrecy that
did us damage. It was the failure to share information. It was having a memo
from an FBI agent out in Phoenix saying there's these Islamic militants in
flight school. And it's classified and it goes into a classified vault in
Washington, and nobody ever sends it on even to the other FBI agents in
Minnesota who had arrested one of those guys.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Blanton. He's the executive director of the National
Security Archive, which works to declassify secret documents when they're
relevant to public policy debate. The group helps journalists, historians and
scholars use the Freedom of Information Act.
On your Web site, you posted a report from the National Security Agency called
Transition 2001, which relates to this story now about the National Security
Agency tapping phone calls with American citizens suspected of talking with
terrorists. What's the relevant--what's this report and what's its relevance
to the story today?
Mr. BLANTON: It's a fascinating document because the National Security
Agency--just as the Bush administration's coming into office back in 2000
after the Supreme Court ruled on Bush v. Gore. And they're coming in and the
National Security Agency says to them in this transition briefer--and it was
originally written as an unclassified document because so many of the Bush
people hadn't gotten their clearances yet. And so the National Security
Agency wanted them to know, look, here's the problem we're facing. And the
problem, they said in that document, was that to have a presence on the living
network, the Web, the Internet, inevitably the packets of digital data that
we're going to be wiretapping, intercepting, picking up, they're going to have
not just the targeted communications of terrorists and adversaries but also
the supposedly protected communications of American citizens, the ones where
you have to get a warrant to be able to read or to listen to. And what the
National Security Agency was saying, `Let's have a national discussion about
how far we should go and whether our authorities are up to date and what we
should do about this problem,' because the Internet--it's an
Internet-distributed-information world. All this stuff is mixed together.
It's not discreet phone calls like we used to get from the Mafia.
But what's fascinating to me about the wiretapping story is the Bush
administration didn't choose to have that debate, and they didn't choose to go
back to Congress and say, `Let's update these authorities,' and they didn't
choose to respond to the National Security Agency invitation. Instead they
chose to do a unilateral, pre-emptive presidential power expansion. And I
think that may be at the heart of many of these secrecy issues and policy
issues, whether it's the torture memos or the roll-backs of Freedom of
Information or presidential records or Vice President Cheney's energy task
force or this current wiretap controversy. It's--at every juncture, the White
House has chosen to--`Let's expand. Let's get more presidential power.'
GROSS: My guest is Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.
We'll talk about a secret memo to Donald Rumsfeld about Saddam Hussein after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Blanton. He's the
executive director of the National Security Archive. And the Archive is
celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Before we talk about some of the other documents over the years that the
National Security Archive has gotten released, formerly declassified
documents, talk with us a little bit about why the Archive was created in the
first place 20 years ago.
Mr. BLANTON: There's a founding myth to the National Security Archive that
goes back to the middle of the 1980s, and a bunch of journalists and scholars
and independent researchers had been getting documents released through the
Freedom of Information Act. And I think at a certain point, 1984, '85, their
spouses rebelled: `Get the paper out of our house. Get it off of our kitchen
table. Either the boxes go or I go.' And they invented the National Security
Archive I think originally to save their marriages. And they did. We've been
a family values institution ever since. And we still get donations of boxes
from people's basements.
But the reality is, we inherited not just all those boxes of paper, but we
inherited pending--still pending Freedom of Information requests, because the
system really doesn't disgorge the secrets unless you push it, unless you ask,
unless you follow up, unless you nudge, unless you threaten with a lawsuit.
And that is the real role of our little institution, a kind of
counter-institution pushing the system to cough up the policy documents, not
the technical, not the secrets, not the weapons systems but the choices that
GROSS: How have the hurdles changed over the years that you have to get
through in order to have documents declassified?
Mr. BLANTON: Mainly, particularly in the last three or four years, the
system has just slowed down dramatically. So back in 2001, it took about 18
months, say, to get a document released from President Reagan or the first
Bush term. Now the delay is about five years before you can even get the
government to look at that document for declassification. So it's--the Bush
White House has basically thrown sand in the gears of what was already a kind
of rusty but a system that a lot of people wanted to use. Four million
Freedom of Information requests last year. People--biggest user group are
actually veterans and their families looking for their service records and
benefits. And the second largest group are senior citizens looking for
retirement and Medicare and Social Security information. Third largest group
is government contractors and regulating companies. Actually journalists and
groups like ours are a tiny fraction, I mean, literally less than 5 percent
and in certain--most agencies, less than 1 percent.
GROSS: And what do the rules of the Freedom of Information Act say? How do
they define what documents could be declassified upon request?
Mr. BLANTON: They basically say if you, as a requester, can actually
identify the document reasonably so that a person on the inside could find it,
then it's covered by the law. And unless the government can find one of about
nine specific reasons to withhold it--and there's a lot of lawsuits over the
years that have defined exactly what that means; the first reason is obviously
national security, but the government has to be able to identify what harm
would occur. There's other exemptions, like personal privacy or protect a
current law enforcement investigation. But the bottom line is the law says
there is a presumption of openness in our government and unless the government
can identify a specific reason where some real harm would be done, and the
good from release wouldn't outweigh it, then the document has to come out.
So the two keys are, one, identify the document that you want as best you can.
Ideally, you have a date, an office, even an author. So we use all the other
documents we get--we scan them to look for references to stuff we should be
asking for. We read the newspaper every day to look for documents that we
should be asking for. We read former officials' memoirs. It's a constant
kind of excavation, if you will, of this enormous national security apparatus
that's largely shrouded by secrecy.
GROSS: You have assembled what you consider to be the National Security
Archives' greatest hits, so to speak, about...
Mr. BLANTON: It was a hard call, I have to say. Out of--literally, we've
liberated millions of pages of documents, and we've saved 40 million White
House e-mails, for example, from one of our lawsuits. But the greatest hits,
some of them were ones that just were obvious, like the front-page story when
we got--released the flag-draped casket photos from Iraq and Afghanistan that
the Pentagon, in an order originally signed by Dick Cheney, had said, `No,
media coverage of these homecoming ceremonies.' For 50 years, the television
cameras and the press were--would cover these solemn, extraordinarily
respectful moments when the flag-draped coffins would come off the airplane at
Dover Air Base in Delaware and come home, and they would be honored,
respected. The duty of the honor guard was the highest calling of a soldier.
GROSS: What did you have to do to challenge this policy and make it legal for
video footage or photographs of these coffins of soldiers...
Mr. BLANTON: It's still not...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. BLANTON: It's still not legal for the press to go in. The courts have
actually held there's no First Amendment right of access to military bases,
and you can see that, you know, that argument was crafted as a classic case.
I think the media overreached to say, `We have a right to go to the airport
runway.' Well, you don't have a right to go onto a missile base or an Air
But our argument was much more simple. It said the Freedom of Information Act
says that if you can't identify the harm, then you gotta release the
documents. And the coffins weren't identified by the person unless the
Pentagon had already released their names, so there was no privacy issue.
There was no national security issue. There was a discomfort at the White
House that flag-draped coffins coming home being on the nightly news might
affect public opinion about the war. But here was a ceremony that's been
public for 50 years, the wars, II, Korea and Vietnam, shut down by the people
in this administration. All we--what we got were the photographs they take
internally mostly for their own training purposes to show the next honor guard
how to do it right. So we believe that those are government records, those
should be public, that's the way we should honor the fallen.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Blanton. He's the
executive director of the National Security Archive, which works to declassify
secret documents that might shed light on American policy and American
As we said, you've compiled a list of your greatest hits, so to speak, and
that includes some briefing notes for Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Baghdad in
March of 1984. What was--what is this briefing memo? What does it have to
Mr. BLANTON: In the whole debate about Iraq and the Iraq War, one of the
pieces that's been missing is this knowledge of what our US government's
relationship with Saddam Hussein has been over the years. And what's largely
forgotten, particularly when Don Rumsfeld gets up at the podium and talks
about pounding the Iraqi army, is that Don Rumsfeld went and shook hands with
Saddam Hussein in 1983 and helped turn Saddam into our ally. Back in the
1980s, it was useful to have Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran, the mullahs,
ayatollahs, the hostage-takers who were seen as the big danger.
So to look at the Saddam Hussein issue in Iraq as an issue in our foreign
policy, we believe you need these primary sources, you need the context, you
need some sense of the history. In that particular document are the briefing
notes that say to Don Rumsfeld, special envoy from President Reagan, `We want
to be your friend, Saddam. We see you as an ally.' And sure enough, he
became our ally, and we gave him intelligence and helped him beat up on the
Iranians. And so it's more than ironic. It helps, I think, citizens
understand the real basis on which policy-makers make decision.
GROSS: Now this briefing memo for Donald Rumsfeld, who was a special envoy to
Iraq at the time, in it he was urged to tell Iraq Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz
that the US statement on chemical weapons was made, quote, "strictly out of
strong opposition to the use of lethal and incapacitating chemical weapons
wherever it occurs." And from what I've read on your Web site, this visit was
supposed to help do damage control because the US had made a strong statement
against chemical weapons, but we wanted to make sure that we didn't completely
alienate Saddam Hussein, who we wanted as an ally.
Mr. BLANTON: That's right, and that is the enormous tragedy, which is weapons
of mass destruction and Saddam's possession of them became the reason given by
the administration to go to war in Iraq, and yet back when Saddam really had
weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, in the 1980s, and really used
them against Iran, we denounced use of chemical weapons publicly but then sent
a secret envoy, Don Rumsfeld, to Saddam to say, `Hey, don't pay attention to
that. It's really--we still want you as our ally' and later on in the 1980s,
gave Saddam intelligence that he used to drop more chemical weapons on the
Iranians and even his own people. So the tragedy--one of the many tragedies
of Iraq is that when Saddam actually had weapons of mass destruction, we were
on his side, and when he no longer had them, we invaded. And it makes a
really uneasy, I think, juxtaposition for people like Don Rumsfeld, who are
part of the earlier policy and are part of it today.
GROSS: Tom Blanton is the executive director of the National Security
Archive. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of saxophone music)
GROSS: That's Ike Quebec. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews
re-issues by Quebec and two other saxophonists, Booker Ervin and Leo Parker.
And Tom Blanton tells us about Nixon's meeting with Elvis Presley and a failed
plan to use cats as spies.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Blanton, director
of the National Security Archive, an organization that works to declassify
secret government documents that will shed light on American policy and
history. They work with journalists and scholars. The archive is celebrating
its 20th anniversary.
One of the documents that the National Security Archive recently helped
declassify pertains to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the bombing
of North Vietnam. What does this--well, why don't you describe first what the
Gulf of Tonkin incident was.
Mr. BLANTON: Back in the summer of 1964, the US was running some covert
operations, not known publicly, to sort of push the North Vietnamese along the
shore of the Gulf of Tonkin. And the North Vietnamese attacked a US destroyer
on August 2nd, 1964--got whacked pretty badly by the destroyer, a bunch of
their folks wounded, a ship mostly sunk--and retreated to lick their wounds.
But two days later there was supposedly a second attack; at least President
Johnson and the National Security Agency reported it as a second attack. And
that become the rationale for Johnson ordering the first major bombing strikes
on North Vietnam, the first major escalation of the war in Vietnam and a
congressional resolution called the Tonkin Resolution that was used for years
thereafter to authorize the wire war in Vietnam.
So the parallels with Iraq are resonant, to say the least. And now we know,
because of a long-suppresses secret set of intercepts, that the second attack
was a fake; that some of the National Security Agency officials even knew it
at the time. But they helped the administration by creating the intelligence
the White House wanted to see.
GROSS: Robert Hanyok, who is a historian with the National Security Agency,
wrote a report about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and challenged whether it
ever happened. He wrote that, `90 percent of the intercepts of North
Vietnamese communications relevant to the supposed Tonkin attack were omitted
from the major agency documents going to policy-makers. The overwhelming body
of reports, if used, would have told the story that no attack had happened.'
Mr. BLANTON: Hanyok deserves a ton of credit because, as a professional
historian inside, he's trying to get the National Security Agency and the
government as a whole to learn the lessons, to understand its own history.
The sad part of the story is that it took 40 years for him to get the National
Security Agency to learn that lesson. And that is one of the huge costs of
secrecy, which is the government itself doesn't know what it's done. The
government itself can't fix its mistakes. The government itself can't do it
right the next time because it doesn't know that it was wrong.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Blanton, the executive
director of the National Security Archive, which works to declassify secret
documents that might shed light on public policy.
Now there's a kind of lighter side to the National Security Archive, and some
of those documents are on your greatest hits list. And one of those pertains
to the secret meeting between Elvis Presley and President Nixon. And on your
Web site, you actually put up the handwritten letter that Elvis sent President
Nixon asking for a meeting. The handwriting's a little hard to read. So
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Sum up for us what this letter has to say.
Mr. BLANTON: Well, we found out back, oh, this is 10 years ago now that the
immortal photograph of President Nixon shaking hands with Elvis
Presley--you've seen it everywhere. It's been on book covers...
GROSS: I have it on an ashtray.
Mr. BLANTON: ...and coffee mugs...
Mr. BLANTON: ...and T-shirts, exactly. We found out, out at the National
Archives of our country, that this was the single most requested document in
the entire files, the entire archives, more than copies of the Constitution or
the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of
Rights; that it's Nixon and Elvis. That's what people really wanted to take
home when they visited the National Archives. And so as document fetishists,
we know that if the president ever meets with somebody in the White House,
there's a whole paper trail. There'll be a briefing memo and probably some
talking points for him to make, and there'll be some probably other pictures
on the roll from the White House photographer.
So one of our brilliant staff people just files a Freedom of Information
request, say, `We want all the documents and any media related in whole or in
part to this meeting between Nixon and Elvis.' And she attaches a copy of the
photograph with the date. And what comes back is this file. The first item
is a handwritten letter from Elvis on American Airlines stationery saying
that, `Dear President Nixon, I was also one of the most outstanding young men,
and I'd really like to be an honorary federal agent at large to help fight the
In other words, Elvis is asking to be a narc, to be an honorary badge as a
narc, great irony given what we know about how he died of barbiturate
overdoses later on. But he says, `I've been made an honorary deputy sheriff
by Shelby County, Tennessee, and Memphis and by other folks, and I really
would like to help.' And he says how to reach him. He's under an assumed
name at the Hotel Washington, and he gives his bodyguards' names and all this.
It's a fascinating little letter.
The next item is a little memo from the appointment secretary to the White
House chief of staff. And the appointment secretary says, `As you know, Elvis
showed up at the front gate of the White House this morning asking to see the
president.' This is not how it's done, I have to say. You know, you have to
line up for an appointment with the president, you know, months in advance.
But Elvis shows up, sends him this letter. And this young appointment
secretary, Dwight Chapin, later of Watergate fame, says to the White House
chief of staff, `I think, you know, the president ought to meet with some
bright young people, and Elvis would be a good place to start.' Well, out to
the side of that recommendation, the White House chief of staff writes, `You
must be kidding.' But he goes in and approves the meeting.
Next item is a set of talking points for the president: `Maybe, Elvis, you
could do a TV special. Get high on life, don't use drugs; help us fight the
drug war.' Next item in there is, you know, a little report on the meeting by
one of the White House staff who attended. And there's a little note from a
secretary saying, `Oh, Elvis left all these autographed photographs. You can
go ahead and take them home,' and, `What are we going to do with the
ceremonial pistol that he brought in for the president?'
GROSS: Why were these documents classified?
Mr. BLANTON: The system default setting is on `secret.' In other words, if
you don't ask for documents to be released, the government will just sit on
them more or less indefinitely. I mean, the system started to be reformed in
the 1990s, and President Clinton actually did a couple of executive orders
trying to get the old secrets out of the system because it costs real money to
keep a secret. It costs about $460 every time to a taxpayer--per year every
time somebody stamps a new record `secret.' Part of our role is to try to
push out the secrets that don't need to be secrets, the secrets that we ought
to be debating, the secrets that really shouldn't be taking up space in the
secret files because if you keep everything secret, then you're discrediting
your whole system.
GROSS: In the National Security Archives greatest hits list, there's also
something called project Acoustic Kitty. You got documents released that
describe what this secret weapon was supposed to be. Why don't you describe
Mr. BLANTON: Well, you can see why the CIA might have wanted to keep this
project secret all these years because some of those brilliant rocket
scientists out there thought about surgically implanting microphones and
transmitters into cats to use them as walking bugs. They'd given up on
dogs; they get too easily distracted. There were very few other critters that
would actually go and curl up and sit in a single place like a park bench, for
example, if you're trying to surveil some Soviet diplomat.
And so they went to all the trouble of testing all these animals, settled on
cats; went to all the trouble of figuring out how to implant the mikes. The
code name as Acoustic Kitty. And they wired their first trained cat for sound
and released it as a field test near a park with a target that it was going to
go to. Unfortunately, it got run over by a taxi. Never--they called off the
whole operation, and the declassified document 40 years later showed that,
well, the environmental factors were probably working against this. We
probably shouldn't try these cat surveillance again.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.
We'll talk about the unintended consequences of his work after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive,
which works to declassify secret government documents using the Freedom of
You've worked to declassify so many secret documents over the years. Have you
ever been surprised in a negative way by the repercussions of having documents
publicly released? Have you ever thought, `Well, maybe this shouldn't have
been made public. Maybe it was secret for a good reason'? Has it ever, you
know, backfired in any way on the country or on the lives of individuals?
Mr. BLANTON: I can only think of a couple examples in my own experience
where looking at the document, I would say, `Hmm, they shouldn't have released
this.' But mostly those have been not a national security but a personal,
privacy matter. For example, when we got the White House e-mail released and
I did a book of the e-mail, some of the e-mail messages that were released I
read as sexual harassment actually. And I thought the government didn't have
any business releasing them to me. But that is quite rare because, really,
after looking at millions of pages--and you can see for yourself; we publish
all this stuff. Look at and judge for yourself. Are there real secrets in
there? And so rarely is there a real secret.
Mostly it's stuff that just from inertia stayed secret. Sometimes it's stuff
that's secret because it hides embarrassment, like a failed project, like
Acoustic Kitty. Most of the time those secrets, the policy secrets, are
because one bureaucrat or another or one president or another was just trying
to control the debate, prevent debate, frame the debate. That's what drives
50 percent of the secrecy, 75 percent of the secrecy. It depends on who you
GROSS: You mentioned your book on White House e-mail. Where does e-mail fit
in when you're applying for the release of secret documents?
Mr. BLANTON: Nowadays e-mail is how the government really does its business.
I'll just give you a little data point. Our lawsuit that saved the White
House e-mail when President Reagan's national security adviser, a guy named
Colin Powell, decided to delete it all back in 1989 ultimately saved about
100, 150,000 e-mail from the Reagan years; about 200, 250,000 e-mail from the
first Bush term and 30 million e-mail from Clinton's eight years.
You see that exponential growth of the electronic messaging is a fascinating
dynamic because it's all electronic, which means it's going to be easier to
save and easier to search. It's also sometimes easier to destroy, except, as
we found out with White House e-mail, maybe not because once you send out an
e-mail, it exists in multiple forms and multiple places and backup tapes and
other people's user areas. If you write an e-mail, I guess one of the lessons
of the information age is expect it ultimately to be public. Historians of
tomorrow are going to have a lot more to work with, but it will be on
computers, and so it may well be easier to work with.
GROSS: You have read so many classified documents over the years--classified
documents that became declassified. I'm wondering if you could single out one
or two of the best and worst writers of memos that you've come across over the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLANTON: Well, I tell you, the former official that in certain ways I'm
most grateful to, although he certainly would reject my gratitude, is Henry
Kissinger, who out of either ego or with his memoirs in view, required that
every word he uttered during his eight years as national security adviser and
secretary of State be recorded. His aides would be at meetings with him till
11 or 12:00 at night and then they'd have to stay up till 3 or 4 in the
morning to write up the verbatim memoranda conversation. When he got on the
phone, his secretaries listened in and made transcripts.
So you have these wonderful moments where, you know, president Nixon calls up
his national security adviser, and Nixon's tape machine is rolling and
Kissinger doesn't know about it, but Kissinger's secretaries are listening in
and Nixon doesn't know about it. They're mutually wiretapping each other.
The net effect, though, is this phenomenal verbatim record of decisions at the
highest levels of US foreign policy. And I think Kissinger never thought
these documents would come out in his lifetime. They directly contradict a
lot of what he wrote in his memoirs. They show all kinds of bad behavior on
his part telling Pinochet, for example, just like Rumsfeld told Saddam
Hussein, `Listen, we're going to say publicly you're a bad guy, but don't take
it personally. You know, we're really on your side.'
GROSS: Do you worry that your attempts to declassify documents will
ultimately have the unintended consequence of having people in power document
less of their conversations to prevent just this kind of declassification,
Mr. BLANTON: Absolutely.
Mr. BLANTON: There is a real price, which is, you know, after Watergate, we
don't have the verbatim audiotapes that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and
Nixon kept. We don't have a minute-by-minute verbatim account of what they
said in the Oval Office. And that is a real loss to history. But there's,
again, a check and balance in this system that knowledge that your
conversations might become public has a clarifying effect on behavior. It
prevents, I think, the worst of those behaviors. The secrecy really cost our
democracy during Vietnam and Watergate, and I think the secrecy today will see
the costs. We are already seeing them in Iraq and we'll see them indefinitely
in the future.
There is a cost, and at the same time there's that wonderful phenomenon, if
you've ever been a kindergartner's birthday party like my daughters have had
where they do that game where one of them whispers into the person's sitting
next to them ear and then that person whispers to the next and it goes all the
way around the room, and by the time the message comes back, it's completely
garbled. You can't run a government on winks and nods and oral instructions.
You have to record things. You have to write things down. You have to have
orders, you have to have task aiders. And with the electronic media, they're
creating vastly more records today than we had, say, on the Spanish American
War or even on World War II or the Vietnam War.
So ultimately I think the price of not having presidents tape their
conversations for fear of it ultimately being released is one that we've
chosen to pay because we want to keep presidents from running black-bag jobs
or lying about their secret bombing of a foreign country.
GROSS: I think there were some words from a satirical newspaper The Onion
that you wanted to leave us with.
Mr. BLANTON: Back in November, The Onion ran a wonderful story, I think they
really captured the heart of the matter, and the headline was `CIA realizes
it's been using black highlighters all these years,' and it says, `Dateline,
Langley, Virginia, report released Tuesday by the CIA's office of the
inspector general revealed the CIA has mistakenly obscured hundreds of
thousands of pages of critical intelligence with black highlighters.' Now,
according to the report, sections of the documents, quote, "almost invariably
invariably the most crucial passages are marred by an indelible black ink that
renders the lines impossible to read." It really gets at the absurdity of
how so much of the secrecy just prevents other parts of the government from
knowing what's really been going on.
GROSS: Well, Tom Blanton, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BLANTON: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure to be with you.
GROSS: Tom Blanton is the director of the National Security Archive, which
is located at George Washington University's Gelman Library.
Before we get to our review of three new jazz reissues, I want to tell you
about tomorrow's show. We're going to feature the interview and performance
we recorded in 2000 with Dion. We talked about the doo-wop records he was
best known for, but he also played songs that showed his blues and country
influences. Now he has a new CD of blues and country songs. Here's a track
(Soundbite of song)
DION: (Singing) You got me running, got me hiding, got me run, hide, I'll run
anywhere you want to let it roll. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You got me doing what
you want me, baby, anywhere you want to let it roll. I'm going up, going
down, going up, down, down, up, anywhere you want to let it roll. Yeah, yeah.
Got me doing what you want me anywhere you want to let it roll. Let it roll,
baby. Yeah, baby...
GROSS: We'll hear from Dion on tomorrow's show.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews reissues by saxophonist Ike
Quebec, Booker Ervin, and Leo Parker. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Newly reissued jazz albums by Ike Quebec, Booker Ervin
and Leo Parker
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says one side of jazz's riches is how many great
musicians often get overlooked, crowded out by other stupendous players. So
today he takes a quick look at three favorite second-tier saxophonists with
recent reissues: Booker Ervin, Leo Parker and this one, Ike Quebec.
(Soundbite of "Sweet and Lovely")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Ike Quebec, 1959, on "Sweet and Lovely," showing off a few of his many traits:
striking shifts between loud and soft notes, achingly slow bends, and lines
that drift like smoke rings. He's a first-rate storyteller, which in jazz
means his solos have a distinctive voice and a sense of drama and direction.
"The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions" of Ike Quebec on two CDs have been out
before but not lately, and the return of these organ group sides cut for the
jukebox trade is a reason to be happy.
Quebec mixes Ben Webster's drowsy whispers and Dexter Gordon's swagger in his
own blend. He sounds great up tempo, but he's best on ballads, especially
tender ones like "What Is There To Say?"
(Soundbite of "What Is There To Say?")
WHITEHEAD: Our second tenor storyteller is the Texas saxophonist Booker
Ervin, who mixed old and new vocabularies in an original way. His crying long
tones echo 19th-century field hollers, but he offset those with fast and
agitated phrases. That balancing act recalls '60s tenor supreme John
Coltrane, but Ervin's pliant tone and Southwest accent gave him his own voice.
Here's Ervin on a 1968 session now out as "Tex Book Tenor." That's Billy
Higgins on drums.
(Soundbite of "Tex Book Tenor")
WHITEHEAD: Booker Ervin recorded that for Blue Note only after making his
masterworks for Prestige, "The Freedom Book," "The Space Book" and the "Blues"
and "Ballad" books, but this a worthy follow-up.
Leo Parker also came to Blue Note long after making his name as bebop's gold
medal baritone saxophonist. One size larger than tenor, the magnificently
burly baritone itself is too often neglected. Leo Parker had played alto
before switching to the big horn, so he was used to playing fast. His 1961
album, "Let Me Tell You 'Bout It," came to be his comeback after years off the
scene. Parker and his sextet were ready.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Leo Parker's comeback never got rolling. A heart attack killed
him four months later. Ike Quebec and Booker Ervin, we just heard, came from
late in their late careers, too. Quebec died in '63, a year after cutting his
last single, and Ervin in 1970, two years after his session. None of them
lived to be 45--cold comfort to them, but at least their music's in
circulation 40 years later. That's what some jazz musicians get instead of
long rides; they get reissued.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for Emusic.com. He reviewed "The
Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions" by Ike Quebec, "Tex Book Tenor" by Booker
Ervin and "Let Me Tell You 'Bout It" by Leo Parker. All are on the Blue Note
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.