The Politics of Document Declassification On New Year's Day, millions of confidential documents were officially declassified. The move followed a decade-old deadline from former President Bill Clinton mandating that 25-year-old documents automatically be made public. The director of National Security Archives and an archivist at the National Archives discuss document declassification.
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The Politics of Document Declassification

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The Politics of Document Declassification

The Politics of Document Declassification

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

At the stroke of midnight on January 1st millions of confidential documents covering some of the most significant politician events of the 20th century were officially no longer secret. The mass declassification was first ordered by President Clinton, and after a couple of postponements, President Bush signed an executive order that requires all government documents automatically be made public after 25 years.

The New York Times described it as a Cinderella moment for researchers interested in the Cold War, Vietnam, FBI investigations, Middle East wars and peace negotiations, and a million other things. But plenty of secrets will stay confidential, and many of those that are declassified may not be accessible for years.

Later in the program, an update on Somalia, where U.S. aircraft attacked what the Pentagon describes as al-Qaida leadership.

But first, declassified documents. What do we know and when will we know it? If you have questions about the process, exemptions, loopholes and practical problems, give us a call. And what confidential memoranda do you want to look at? Remember this stash only covers materials from before 1981. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail:

Joining us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California, is Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archives, an independent research institute at George Washington University that publishes declassified documents. And Thomas Blanton, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. THOMAS BLANTON (Director, National Security Archives): Real nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I've read that this could be up to a billion documents.

Mr. BLANTON: It's pretty extraordinary, but I think the metaphor - the coverage so far has gotten the metaphor wrong. It's not like a faucet turning on and all of a sudden the secrets are going to come pouring out. It's more like they've pulled the biggest, thickest curtain off the window but still the window is stuck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANTON: It's not quite open. There aren't enough people out there at the government's archives actually to take the secrets out of the vaults and get them into boxes and put them on the shelves so people like us can go through them. So we're not exactly standing out there at the National Archives with big buckets waiting for the stuff to pour in. It'll be months, if not years, before you really see a wave of this stuff.

But to their credit, I mean the last eight years, more of these historical documents got declassified than under all the previous presidents put together because the government had this deadline.

CONAN: And we're going to be talking with one of the people who work at the National Archives to find out about their problems a little bit later in the program.

Mr. BLANTON: I hope he's spraying a little, you know, something - silicon gel - on the window...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANTON: try to get it open because he needs some help. He really does.

CONAN: He really does need some help, and he'll be talking to us about that. But in terms of what's become available, we did hear some material on this radio network on January 1st about new information about William Rehnquist. Are stuff starting to come out already?

Mr. BLANTON: Well, that was actually credit to the Freedom of Information Act, which is when a celebrity or a leading public official dies, their privacy right under the Freedom of Information Act to keep their personal files - say, in this case FBI files on the Chief Justice Rehnquist - that ends. And so you can ask. If you read in the obituary page that Marilyn Monroe died or Justice Rehnquist, you can file a Freedom of Information Request and it doesn't fall under any time limit. There's no 25-year rule. It doesn't have to be historical. The great virtue of Freedom of Information is it can be today. We've even gotten some of the war games that the Bush administration more or less ignored about Iraq that Tom Ricks has written about. He was on earlier in the show.

CONAN: And as you look at this material, obviously there is some stuff that is not going to be declassified.

Mr. BLANTON: That's right. Some of it is really common sense, which is if a CIA spy overseas could get shot or her family really hurt by the identity becoming known, that shouldn't come out. If a design for a nuclear weapon that might help Qaddafi re-up his nuclear program, that shouldn't come out. There are some real reasonable, legitimate reasons for secrets. There's some real secrets. But that's a really small fraction. A lot of the stuff that got stamped secret - well, I was just on a panel yesterday with Bob Woodward. He said the secrecy problem in Washington is so bad that if a document's not stamped secret nobody's interested in reading it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANTON: So you have this amazing bureaucratic imperative. People stamp this stuff secret for decades partly to protect real national security secrets, but also to cover their own rear ends and to keep nosy people like us and, say, the Congress out of their business. And so part of the rational, the real hope I think of this deadline and this order - and its to Clinton and Bush's credit, both that they kept in place - it has the potential of bringing some rational choice into what is otherwise a real dysfunctional secrecy system where it stays secret more or less forever unless you push it out.

CONAN: And one of the reasons this all went through was because of the astounding and escalating cost of keeping all of this stuff secret.

Mr. BLANTON: Absolutely. The government's own numbers - and I have to make a distinction here - we really don't know what it costs the CIA to keep their secrets secret because their whole budget is secret, so - but just the public numbers, you're talking $7, $8, $9 billion every year just to run the secrecy system - the vaults, the clearances, the safes, all that stuff. And it didn't make sense to be holding 25-year-old stacks of stuff from the Vietnam War or, say, about Soviet Union. The Soviet Union doesn't even exist anymore. We might learn something; we might learn to do a little better in our policymaking. And I think the bottom-line is if officials know what they write down or what they record is going to come out someday, then it's a real incentive for better behavior in the here and now. It's that old notion, what Justice Brandeis said; he said sunlight is the best disinfectant.

CONAN: If you have questions about what's going to remain secret, how the material will be accessed, if it will be, or if you have some information you'd be interested in reading about, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is Thomas Blanton's our guest. He's director of the National Security Archives. And Becky's with us, Becky on the line with us from Union, Michigan.

BECKY (Caller): Hello.


Mr. BLANTON: Hi there.

BECKY: My question has a lot to do with some of the most favorite conspiracies that we have in this country, like the Kennedy assassination. What does this mean for the information that was kept secret after that? Will that be coming out? Or what's going to happen with that?

CONAN: The back files of the Warren Commission, are they going to be made public?

Mr. BLANTON: They're already out, bless the hearts of the Congress. After Oliver Stone did that movie “JFK,” airing out some of the conspiracy theories, Congress actually passed a law - this was one of the first big successes in the 1990s, the decade of openness - they set up an independent review commission. It had historians, a federal judge. They really pushed the CIA, the military, Warren Commission. They got something like seven, eight million pages of stuff released, and I think that experience - huge success - it didn't put to rest the conspiracies, because conspiracy theories are going to be with us forever. It's not like you get to the absolute truth. All the documents do is get you a little bit more information to make your decisions with. But the Kennedy assassination records experience was one of the baselines that helped create this executive order. Look, the government can actually get all the secrets out, there's no damage to national security and it actually means the government is coming clean.

CONAN: It's not to say that there aren't controversies, though. I read today that next year the National Security Agency, which of course intercepts electronic information, is expected to release a lot of information on the destruction of the USS Liberty, which of course was a tremendously controversial event back in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr. BLANTON: Hugely and still is. I mean there are already a lot of declassified documents about the Liberty because it's so controversial. But one of the mysteries has been what was the Liberty hearing and what was it listening to, and was there any motive for Israel to do deliberately what it and the U.S. government both said later was an accidental attack on the Liberty. And so these mysteries have really festered the survivors' families. They've filed lawsuits, people have done Freedom of Information requests. But this is one of those little areas where the secrecy still is the rule, not the exception, on what we can intercept overseas, what our capacity is. The National Security Agency has fought really hard never to release that stuff; or if it had to release it, it only releases the stuff of its own choosing.

CONAN: Becky, thanks very much for the call.

BECKY: Thank you. Have a great day.

CONAN: You too. Let's go to - this is Chris, Chris with us from Modesto, California.

CHRIS (Caller): Yeah, good morning to both of you.

Mr. BLANTON: Good morning.

CHRIS: I have kind of a selfish interest. My dad was in the Navy; he was an officer in the Navy. He served - worked out of the Pentagon in naval intelligence. When I took a class on the Vietnam War in community college years ago, I asked my dad when you were in Vietnam? And most of the people in the class said, oh, my dad was '68 to '74. My dad says '62 to '68. And I was wondering what was he doing, you know, in the early years and stuff. And I have a copy of his old passport from then, and he's all over Southeast Asia. He's even in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe. And I'm just - I think I'm going to take the passport and hopefully try to research what my dad was doing from '62 to '68, kind of see, you know, what his job entailed working for Navy intelligence.

Mr. BLANTON: You know, that's the kind of real human story that's in these files. I mean this is our nation's secret history. This is the stuff somebody stamped secret because it might have done some damage at the time. But now, 25, 30 years later, there's no reason to keep it secret. You might be able to find out what he was up to, what our country was up to, what decisions were made about Vietnam that actually resonate today, and bring back some of your own personal history. That's what these documents, these kind of artifacts, that's their power.

CHRIS: Yeah, because years later he would actually tell me that early on, '63, '64, many of the officers he worked with, they'd all worked with the French intelligence, knew what was going on in the background and had studied thousands of years, hundreds of years of, you know, people trying to take over the Vietnamese country and the area. And he'd realized early on it wasn't going to happen for the U.S., and that was '63, '64. And he said many of the people that he worked with in Navy intelligence shared that same idea that this is a bad step to go into. So I'm very curious to see what steps were taken back then and, as you said, what parallels there are today. So, great topic. Thank you both very much.

CONAN: Chris, before we let you go. If you go over to the National Archives to look up this information, as you're going to hear later in the program, pack a lunch.

CHRIS: Oh, I already plan on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANTON: Maybe a sleeping bag.

CHRIS: Many hours.


CHRIS: Thanks, gentlemen, both of you.

Mr. BLANTON: Good luck to you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Chris. And let me ask you, this automatic declassification - we just have a few seconds before we have to go to a break - but this is going to happen every year, isn't it?

Mr. BLANTON: That's right, and there'll be a rolling kind of deadline. Now it's still not a flood and still not like cornucopia, show up on January 2nd and get a download, get a present. But what it does is it keeps the pressure on for a more rational system. Get the old documents out, reduce the cost to the taxpayer, let us have our own history back.

CONAN: Our guest is Thomas Blanton. He's the director of the National Security Archives. We're talking about the new batch - batch - a billion pages of declassified documents from the government. When we get back, we'll - from the break - we'll hear from Peter Klein about his search for secret FBI files on his father, and we'll take more of your calls: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail:

I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the millions of confidential documents officially declassified at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day. While they're no longer considered official secrets, many of them will not be made public for months or even years. We'll talk with the man responsible for the declassification project in a few minutes.

Right now we're talking with Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archives at George Washington University. If you have questions about this process, give us a call or tell us what confidential memos you would like to take a look at. Again, this stash only covers material before 1981. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

And some have suggested that in fact this material ought to be prioritized, the agencies ought to go through it and only issue the most interesting material first. Peter Klein disagrees, and he has some firsthand experience with declassified documents. A little over a year ago, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request about his father and found some surprising information. He's an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and joins us now here in Studio 3 - joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Vancouver.

Professor Peter Klein (Journalism, University of British Columbia): Hello.

CONAN: Peter Klein, what did you find out about your dad?

Prof. KLEIN: Well, I was doing some family research. I'm working on a book. And there was a - sort of a rumor or a family story that my father mentioned a couple of times, not taking it very seriously, but had mentioned that the FBI stopped by a couple times in the 1950s. So being a journalist, I figured he must have a file and that file might have some information, so I'll just file a FOIA like I often do when I'm doing a story. And I never imagined that I would get 50 pages with, you know, stamped secret all over the place, with some names that, you know, really just from the center of Cold War history; most notably J. Edgar Hoover who personally had a memo to the CIA about my father, calling him a person of interest, saying that they were suspicious he may have been an AVO agent, a Hungarian KGB agent who came over during the 1956 revolution.

CONAN: And to make a long story short. What turned out to be an incident aboard the ship that he was coming over on, he got into a fight with somebody who ended up falsely accusing him, and that accusation hung over his head for how long?

Prof. KLEIN: Twelve years, if not longer. Yeah, to make a long story short, essentially, my father had come over in 1956 during the Hungarian revolution. He lived in Hungary his whole life, and during the revolution a lot of Hungarians fled. On the boat over, he got into some sort of altercation with a guy on the boat. I don't know the person's name because it's redacted in the file. But this person went to an Army captain when they landed in New Jersey and said that my father was AVO, was KGB. And he had a whole long convoluted story about how my father had arrested and beat him, sent him to labor camp because he had spoken out against the fact that farmers can't keep their seed and they have to give it to the communist regime.

And what began immediately, the FBI - the New Jersey office of the FBI, and then eventually the Cincinnati office where they settled, basically followed him. They had a mole within the Hungarian community in Cincinnati who at one point said that it's very suspicious that my father's family is not socializing enough. This, you know, this might raise a red flag. All sorts of little incidents like that in the file.

CONAN: And that's sort of a little disturbing after all this time, to realize that the FBI was keeping track on the Hungarian community like that.

Prof. KLEIN: Well, yes, it's disturbing. You know, a number of people have asked me what's the big deal, what's the harm? My father wasn't harmed. He was a U.S. citizen. He never had a problem getting a home loan or buying a car. My father had a wonderful experience in this country, and he passed away about 12 years ago. But, you know, literally never - I don't think he ever said a bad word about America, never had a bad experience here. So he certainly didn't suffer. You know, for me, it's interesting stuff for a book. So you could say I haven't really suffered, what's the big deal?

I mean what - to me, what's interesting is just the fact that this thing happened, that this was happening to innocent - my father worked on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company in Cincinnati. You know, he was just a hardworking, regular guy. And the fact that this was happening back then I think is just interesting historically and particularly when you put it into the current context of what's going on in America. You know, 25 years from now we're going to look back on what was going on in the United States now and, you know, I think we're going to find some - we're going to be surprised sort of the way I was surprised.

CONAN: And I wonder, Thomas Blanton, it's - Michael Kurtz - excuse me - Peter Klein makes the argument that, you know, this is the kind of material that needs to be made public and that people, as you suggested, filing this kind of material need to know it's going to be made public.

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly. I mean Peter's story is a great story because it has some real bottom-line historical lessons. One is documents don't tell the truth. I mean documents lie just like people do and are written for all kinds of purposes. But if they are kept secret and if the government is allowed to keep its activities - its surveillance activities, its intelligence and spying, its law enforcement stuff secret - it's more likely to get dirty in there.

And if it's going to - if it sees the light of day and gets checked against other information so that someone like Peter can actually figure out, oh, this was a personal grudge, not an actual counterintelligence matter that drove this, it should also give us some humility about our ability to know the truth and for our government to even know the truth. Because we only get closer to the truth I think by having some larger, open, deliberative process where as much as possible is out there on the public domain and so Peter can work through it for a book, my organization can publish it on the Web and tie the - put the dots together, so our own policymakers can learn from the mistakes of people like J. Edgar Hoover.

CONAN: Peter Klein, thanks very much, and good luck with the book.

Prof. KLEIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Klein, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. His op-ed, “My Father's Red Scare,” appeared in The New York Times on January 4th, and he joined us today from the studios of the CBC in Vancouver, British Columbia. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Cindy, Cindy from North Carolina.

CINDY (CALLER): Hi, thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

CINDY: I'd like to know how an average person like me can have access to these files. Do we go online? Do we have to go in person? Where do we go? I don't know the process. I think that would help a lot if I knew what I was doing before I got started.

CONAN: Well, first of all, what are you looking for?

CINDY: Well, I'm interested in the Vietnam War. My husband and my dad both served there, and I have my husband's journals and I'd like to see what I could find. And then my dad was in a MASH unit, so.

CONAN: Well, let's bring in our next guest who might be able to answer this question. It's Michael Kurtz. He's the assistant archivist for record services at the National Archives. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Good of you to join us today.

Mr. MICHAEL KURTZ (Assistant Archivist for Record Services, National Archives): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And do you have any advice for Cindy?

Mr. KURTZ: Yes, the records from the Vietnam War are stored at the National Archives at College Park, which is a large research facility in suburban Washington, and they are open and available for research. We have all the unit records for the Vietnam conflicts, so I think a lot of the information she would be interested in would be there.

She could either e-mail us or write. We could do some research and have records ready for her to review when she comes in. At this point and time, the records are not online. We do have hope to form partnerships with various organizations to get our materials online. So that's a long-term goal for the archives.

CINDY: Now how would I know when it is online and available?

Mr. KURTZ: Oh, we're going to definitely - we have a Web site: And so you can find out from that our research room hours, where we're located. We're actually a nationwide organization. We have the presidential libraries, regional archives around the country. So you can get a lot of information from our Web site. And we also indicate on our Web site recently declassified records so people can find out what's been declassified.

CINDY: Now what about the JFK stuff? Is that available through that also?

Mr. KURTZ: Yes, it is. The JFK assassination review board records are located at College Park.

CINDY: Yeah, I was 17 when he was assassinated and I have never lost interest in that, and I'd like to look some things up.

Mr. KURTZ: It's an excellent collection.

CONAN: Cindy, good luck.

CINDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

CINDY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And this new tranche of information, and it's rather a large tranche, Michael Kurtz, is a - how long is it going to take you to go through it and make it available to people?

Mr. KURTZ: Well, let me put a little bit of context so that the listeners have some idea that there's a great deal of information available right now. Since the executive order came into effect in 1995, we've declassified, working with federal agencies, about 460 million pages of material that has been processed and it's on the open shelves and available for research. As a matter of fact, the National Archives had a systematic declassification review program since 1972. And between 1972 and 1995, over 600 million pages were released.

What we have on our hands right now is about 400 million pages that require both referrals to agencies to finish declassification review of multiple equities...

CONAN: Let me just stop you there.

Mr. KURTZ: Sure.

CONAN: Referral to other agencies.


CONAN: In other words, it might be a State Department document, but the NSA or the CIA might have an interest in it.

Mr. KURTZ: Right. Let's just take the State Department document as an example. In it you have not only State Department information, but you could have CIA information, you could have Army information, nuclear weapon information from the Department of Energy. So when it's time to do declassification, all of those agencies with equities, as they're called, have to review for their information and make a declassification decision.

Now the archivist Professor Allen Weinstein has started a new initiative called the National Declassification Initiative, which is designed to have the agencies work together collaboratively. So we get a group of experts from various agencies or expert in a particular body of records so they can deal with the questions about the equities and make the declassification decisions working together as a team, instead of kind of in serial fashion which can take months and years to do.

And so we have great hope that this initiative is going to streamline the process a great deal, end up with better decision making on the part of the agencies, so what truly needs to be protected remains protected and otherwise made available.

CONAN: But part of the problem of course is the amount of help you need and have to do all this.

Mr. KURTZ: Right. I mean, in addition to making the referrals out of these 400 millions pages, we also have to do archival processing. That means description. It can mean preservation work and so forth. And we aren't adequately staffed to handle the 400 million pages. We do have a plan in place as part of our strategic plan to try to eliminate this backlog over a five to ten year period.

But the point is, each month, you know, we finish material, put it on the shelves so there's always something being released. And the reason I mentioned to the earlier caller about the Web site and the list of declassified records so you know what's declassified, what's released and what's available.

CONAN: And I assume your agency is being paid under the same continuing resolution as most of the rest of the government.

Mr. KURTZ: Yes.

CONAN: Which means effectively your budget has been cut for next year.

Mr. KURTZ: Exactly. We're going to operate under the 2006 budget we had. And you're correct. That's the implication.

CONAN: So the speed with which you're going to be able to go through this is thereby reduced.

Mr. KURTZ: It is. What we've done under the archivists' direction is also reallocate some of our staff to take them off other tasks and put them onto declassification, and so we're hoping to try to push that process along. But that means other things slow down.

CONAN: All right. Our guests are Michael Kurtz. He's the assistant archivist for record services at the National Archives here in Washington, D.C. Also still with us Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archives, who's with us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Stewart(ph). Stewart where are you calling from?

STEWART (Caller): I'm calling from Portland, Oregon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEWART: Well, my father was a CIA case officer from 1947 to 1968. And I've been looking into his career, been going to the archives and I got a lot of stuff on his World War II period with OSS, but CIA documents are very - almost nothing from the CIA. And I'm wondering what possibility there is with this new declassification, what's going to happen with those CIA records?

CONAN: Tom Blanton?

Mr. BLANTON: There's still a serious exemption for the CIA for these operational files for what the case officers actually did and when they did it and where they were. And there are some good reasons for that and there are some bad reasons for that.

The good reasons are in some places around the world these folks work with other people who might could still be in danger. There are some bad reasons for it in the sense that the CIA's just basically thrown a black cloth over this whole area of its work. The CIA's even refused to release some of its internal histories.

And what's funny about that - we got the internal history released on the Guatemala coup in 1954, which is during the time when your dad was a case officer. Maybe he was involved in that. One of the interesting things about it is we also got the internal investigation of the Bay of Pigs.

Turns out one of the problems that lead to the disaster of the Bay of Pigs was the CIA didn't actually know itself what it had done and not done in Guatemala. And it believed its own myths and tried it again in Cuba and it totally failed.

And so you've got a dysfunctional, I think, secrecy system around the CIA based on some legitimate reasons, the need to protect sources and methods, and some just reflexive niche or almost fetish type secrecy. It's a constant struggle. CIA has pushed against the National Archives' more rational approach.

And if the archivist does succeed, as Michael was saying, in creating a more centralized and streamlined process, maybe we'll get out of this kind daisy chain, chain letter approach to referring all these secret documents around where, you know, they disappear for years, and get it more into a more cost effective, risk management, real benefit to the taxpayer and to you finding your own personal history.

CONAN: Michael Kurtz?

STEWART: I submitted a FOIA request to them well more than a year ago and haven't heard word one.

CONAN: Michael Kurtz, can you help us on this?

Mr. KURTZ: Stewart, the one thing I'd like to say in response to your concern, the National Archives is working with the CIA at this point to develop a memorandum of understanding so that the transfer of historically valuable records from the CIA to the National Archives can take place. And so we're very hopeful that over time we will in fact have a substantial CIA collection at the National Archives.

CONAN: But doesn't the Freedom of Information Act itself require a speedy response from a government agency, even if the answer's supposed to be no?

Mr. KURTZ: It does.

Mr. BLANTON: It does, but several courts have sort of let that deadline expire. I mean I get jealous when I go to places like India, which has a Freedom of Information Act that if they don't respond within 30 days the official who's responsible has to paying 200 rupees a day. My friends there say they get calls from the bureaucrats on day 29 saying, oh, if I put it in the mail it's going to be five days late. I'll start paying a fine.

In the U.S. system, in effect, an agency like the CIA can delay almost as long as it wants until we put them into The Washington Post and embarrass them on a Freedom of Information request that's, you know, old enough to qualify for a driver's license.

CONAN: And Michael Kurtz - thanks very much for the call, by the way - Michael Kurtz, do you prioritize these documents in any way or do you just go through them as they come in?

Mr. KURTZ: No, we do prioritize them based on research or interest. We're also working with the Public Interest Declassification Board to work out our sense of priorities for working through the 400 million pages that I mentioned. So no, we don't just do first in, first out. We really do try to prioritize to what most interests people.

CONAN: Well thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. KURTZ: A pleasure.

CONAN: Michael Kurtz is the assistant archivist for record services at the National Archives. He's overseeing the release of millions of documents declassified by the federal government. He joined us today here in Studio 3A. Thomas Blanton, thank you as well.

Mr. BLANTON: Thank you, Neal. It was a real pleasure.

CONAN: Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. He joined us today from NPR West in Culver City, California.

When we come back from a short break we'll get an update on U.S. air strikes in Somalia. NPR correspondent Gwen Thompkins just left Mogadishu. Plus, your letters. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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