31 December 2017

Why funny things happen in the National Archives

Pay attention to state press releases during the holidays and long weekends. It is an ideal period to release embarrassing or inconvenient news that must be released, in the hopes that it will escape the public eye, if not the eye of journalists. This Christmas, the UK National Archives announced that thousands of declassified government papers had gone missing. To be more precise, "misplaced while being on loan to government department."

Was this incompetence on the part of the archives, or a pattern of mendacity and obfuscation on the part of the government?

It is possible that Singapore does not have a declassification regime comparable to the UK, Singapore's national archives is not that big a clown show as the UK's, nor does Singapore's government have more skeletons to hide. Realistically, the same tensions exist between any government and its state archival authority, with a tendency towards similar outcomes.

In other words, we're calling shenanigans (at least for the UK case). And we'll argue that Singaporeans need to think hard about what they want to know from their government.

The declassification game

A declassification regime protects 2 vital functions of the state:
The initial secrecy and classification safeguards the executive function. It recognizes that even in a democracy, even while it is subject to legislative scrutiny and public accountability, a duly elected government (including its analysts and sources) is entitled to a degree of necessary secrecy and autonomy in order to govern.
The later declassification safeguards the democratic function, where disclosure restores the confidence of the public in the state by revealing the truth and intention behind secret state decisions and deliberations.

That is to say: government has the right to govern but at the end of the day, if we are to remain a democracy, government must be made transparent. But how much time do we give the government to declassify its documents?

Contrary to expectations, declassifcation regimes are nothing like Jack Nicholson
The UK takes a regulated route: a set of laws on governance and public records put it at 30 years for most cabinet minutes and department memos, and 50 years and more for sensitive material held by the MI5 and MI6 intelligence agencies, and the Foreign and Commonwealth offices. While Singapore does not have a compulsory declassification regime that compels government ministries and departments to surrender documents to the National Archives of Singapore, it is worth noting that some the national archives in our ASEAN neighbours of SARBICA, the regional archival association, are empowered to do just that.

Singapore's declassification policy appears to be voluntary. Ministries decide whether to hold on to their repositories, create an archives of their own, surrender some holdings to the archives, or even declassified their own documents and exhibit them in their own museum. The National Archives of Singapore conducts interviews with political leaders and civil servants, and these interviews are theoretically open to the public.

The realities of declassification

In an ideal world, a thorough review is necessary before repositories are identified, declassified, redacted, and surrendered to the archival authority or are further withheld for security considerations.

But in a compulsory declassification regime, the declassification itself may take place before the review, and that any practical review happens only after the surrender -- hence government departments taking a loan on the very same documents they just surrendered to the archives. It is an open secret in the archival community that departments do not return these documents upon realization of security considerations. In bureaucratic parlance, the loans are forgotten, the documents are misplaced, lost, or accidentally destroyed. In reality, these documents that are reported lost, destroyed, or misplaced tend to turn up in a few decades.

This doesn't actually happen. Governmentality is about record-keeping, not destroying
But why do documents go missing?

Political sensitivity is for the most part, a red herring. Declassification regimes are designed such that disclosure takes place decades after policymakers have left office, and then only some time after their death.

The key rather is in security considerations. Decision makers must be protected but so must their sources and analysts. The average age of elected MPs for a long time, has been in the late 40s and early 50s, much older than analysts, field operatives, and sources whose reports would've informed their decisions.

The top departments for declassified documents to go missing has consistently been the FCO and intelligence. We posit that while declassification regime in the UK is based on first the creation of the document, then the status (deceased or alive) of the minister approving the document, it is likely that only security considerations for field operatives and their sources are only done in the post-surrender reviews.

What happens when mistakes happen

In a compulsory declassification regime, the 'only' face-saving measure is to make the documents disappear. In a voluntary declassification regime, there is no face-saving measure. Either the agency has made an error of judgement in releasing to the public, or the department is admitting to incompetence by requesting a reclassification and withdrawal of public access records. When the government itself orders a withdrawal, it is advertising a cover-up. When a court declares previously publicly available records to be state secrets, questions and doubts are raised about the validity of contractual agreements between an archival institution and its contributors, the independence of the archival institution, and the integrity of its holdings.

It is worth noting that actual and willful destruction of archival documents has only happened in compulsory declassification regimes. Margaret Levi reports, in Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism:
More arcane is the account of a small fire that destroyed relevant materials from World War I and World War II in the Australian War Memorial. The representatives of the British government operate under strict rules of secrecy concerning a very large amount of military-related material and they uphold these rules rigorously. The Australian government operates with a greater openness. The problem arose because in the Australian war memorial were records that the British deemed secret and the Australians did not. The problem was resolved by the British, or so my reliable source tells me, by planting a mole archivist in the War Memorial. This mole lit a small fire in the relevant stacks and disappeared.
While a compulsory declassification regime presents more problems in the process, the remedies for mis-classification are less palatable and viable for the compulsory declassification regime.

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