DC, April 21, 2006 - Last month the National Archives
and Records Administration (NARA) put almost 320,000 declassified
cables on-line when it opened up State Department document databases
from 1973 and 1974. This is significant news for researchers,
because the text of declassified diplomatic cables is now retrievable
on the NARA
Beginning in 1973, the State Department began creating electronic
systems for transmitting cables to and from U.S. embassies. With
computerized records management becoming standard practice, only
electronic copies of the cables would be saved in the State Department's
Central Foreign Policy Files. Over time, NARA will put on-line
State Department document databases for the years after 1974.
The new databases provide extensive coverage of key events of
the period, from the October War, to the conflict in Indochina,
to developments in Chile surrounding the September 1973 coup against
the Allende government. They also include withdrawal cards of
documents that are still classified, so that they can be requested
under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Unfortunately, the new electronic systems lost significant numbers
of cables as they migrated through new software and hardware.
Moreover, Top Secret and other tightly-controlled cables cannot
be retrieved on-line. The new databases include non-cable records,
but they can only be identified, not viewed, on-line.
According to National Security Archive senior analyst William
Burr, the National Archives and the State Department "have
taken a major step forward in transparency by making available
on-line around the world important declassified historical records."
The National Security Archive's background
paper on the new databases shows the strengths and
weaknesses of the new on-line system as well as sample cables
from 1973-1974, including items regarding:
- a June 1973 coup attempt
against Chilean president Salvador Allende,
Archives Releases New State Department Document Databases from the
Edited by William Burr *
On March 17, the National Archives unveiled newly
declassified databases of State Department documents
from 1973 and 1974. The databases include the State Department's
cable traffic from both years, non-cable documents for 1974, and
withdrawal notices for those documents that remain classified.
This is a long-awaited event, which encountered delays because
of the difficult and complex task of segregating documents with
private (e.g., Social Security numbers) and classified information
from the non-classified items in the databases. The effort resulted
in a major release - nearly 320,000 declassified cables (119,356
for 1973 and 200,508 for 1974).
At their best, the cable databases can be searched, documents
retrieved and viewed on-line using Adobe Acrobat. This is an extraordinary
development for doing primary research on the history of U.S.
foreign relations because it reflects the State Department's practice,
beginning in 1973, of relying on automated systems to preserve
its Central Foreign Policy Files. Rather than preserving paper
copies of those files, the Department began to rely on computer
databases and microfilm systems. As highly innovative as these
systems were in the mid-1970s, they were nevertheless in their
infancy; some records were lost and others not preserved in an
orderly way. Nonetheless, the availability of these electronic
systems means that some primary source research can be accomplished
without traveling to the NARA facility at College Park, MD. As
time passes and databases for the rest of the 1970s and later
years become available, the automated State Department Central
Foreign Policy Files will be a major site for historical research
on U.S. diplomacy.
NARA's Access to Archival Databases (AAD) Web page provides useful
information in a downloadable FAQ
document on the new State Department document databases,
but there is more to be said. To help new users navigate their
way through the system, its various components, as presented on
the AAD web-site, is described and discussed in the following
As the AAD Web site shows, the cable traffic includes the periods
July-December 1973 and January-December 1974. Each period is divided
into two components: the cable databases and the withheld document
cards. Almost everything on the cable databases is searchable,
including possible key phrases or words, date ranges, classification,
or distribution method (e.g., Limdis or Limited Distribution,
or Exdis or Exclusive Distribution). Moreover, cities where the
United States had embassies or consulates can be searched, e.g.
cables sent "to" or "from" Paris produce many
hits for the U.S. Embassy in France. Critically important for
searches is that the cables can be searched by using the State
Department's TAGS [Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject]
system, which enables researchers to retrieve documents by subject
and geographic area, e.g. PINR for "political affairs intelligence"
and PK for "Pakistan." A pull-down menu allows researchers
to designate those TAGS that they want to assign to searches.
The withdrawal cards do not provide quite the same scope for
searches of classified cables because some of the titles are classified.
Nevertheless, it is possible to use the TAGS, from/to, date ranges,
classification levels, etc. to identify possibly relevant items.
A search of the cable databases for 1973 and 1974 will produce,
in many instances, electronic versions of the documents; unfortunately,
the search results will often yield an "error reading text"
message instead of the document. That refers to those items that
the State Department lost over the years when migrating the cable
databases from old to new software and hardware. Apparently NARA
has not yet received a formal explanation from State of exactly
what happened. Nevertheless, some of the missing telegrams may
be recoverable if the page of data that follows the "error
reading text" message includes a number in the Film Number
field. That means that the document will show up in the P-Reels
(described below) for 1974 or the following years. Unhappily,
many of the un-retrievable cables do not have such numbers and
may be lost forever. Thus, of the telegrams for 1973, some 8,612,
or 7.2%, of the 119,356 cables, are in that category. For the
1974 telegrams, the picture is not as quite as bad: 1,085 cables,
or half of one percent, of 200,508 cables, are lost. According
to sources at NARA, the Department of State has done everything
it can to recover the lost telegrams. The Computer Output Microfilm
(COM) now on the D-Reels (see below) was produced as a backup,
and many telegrams were later filmed on the P-Reels. These microfilm
collections are an important source for possible recovery of the
lost telegrams. It is also possible that some of the missing items
will eventually show up in State Department lot files, in embassy
records, or in collections of presidential papers.
Once items listed on the electronic withdrawal cards are declassified
in whole or in part through FOIA or mandatory review, NARA will
face the difficult task of finding ways to integrate the newly-released
items into the cable databases. NARA staffers are starting to
think about how to manage this problem but they have not yet tasked
a software contractor to develop a solution.
The cable databases for 1973 and 1974 include documents classified
through Secret but they do not include Top Secret cable traffic.
The National Archives has received a carton that includes a series
of telegrams supposedly representing the entire universe of TS
telegrams from 1973-1974. The declassification unit at NARA has
not yet processed the carton. Some archivists had been led to
believe that downgraded-TS documents were to be microfilmed into
the P-Reels, but have found nothing to indicate that has actually
While Top Secret cables are of interest to researchers, so are
NODIS ("no distribution") cables, which had highly limited
circulation. There are not many NODIS cables in the 1973-1974
cable databases but so far none are retrievable - they appear
to be available only on the P-Reels for subsequent years (although
some may be found in the Nixon presidential collections). Beginning
in 1975, however, the State Department began producing a separate
set of microfilm (N-Reels) for NODIS telegrams. The Department
has already transferred copies of the 1975 N-reel microfilm to
NARA where they await declassification review. The NODIS telegrams
will not have a separate index and will be searchable either in
the cable databases or in the P-reel indexes (including respective
withdrawal card indexes).
P-Reel microfilm 1974
The P-Reel ["P" for paper] microfilm includes mostly
non-cable documents: airgrams, memoranda of conversations, memos
and the like. The index on the AAD Web site covers all of the
P-Reel documents from 1974 that have been declassified. (A separate
database covers the withdrawal cards for the P-Reel). This is
an index only; the documents themselves, unlike most cables, cannot
be viewed on-line. The list of documents that a productive search
will yield will include document numbers that begin with the year
in which the item was microfilmed (e.g. P740006-0867). To deal
with this problem, NARA has printed all of the documents from
1974 for which it has the microfilm. It has also created a finding
aid so that researchers visiting NARA can find them easily (see
Annex A below). Unfortunately, there's a kicker: More than a few
of the 1974 documents were microfilmed in subsequent years going
as far forward as the mid-1980s (they have document numbers beginning
with, e.g., 82). NARA does not have the P-Reel microfilm for those
years; only the State Department does. Therefore, researchers
will need to ask the State Department for copies, presumably using
the FOIA request route.
Another element of complexity in the P-reel system is the relationship
between the withdrawal cards and the print-outs. Despite appearances
to the contrary not every document for which there is a withdrawal
card is classified. Those documents will show up fully declassified
in the P-reel print-outs. However, some documents listed in the
P-reel index are actually classified; researchers will find withdrawal
sheets when they look for them.
The same search methods that are available for cables can be
used for the P-Reels. Searches on the withdrawal cards, however,
are problematic because the titles of the documents are invariably
classified. While TAGS can be used to produce possibly relevant
items, some documents do not have TAGS, which limits search possibilities
D-Reels ["D" for digital] are computer output microfilm
of the electronic telegram traffic. All the telegrams in the system
were supposed to have been automatically printed to film as the
permanent copy. There were problems with the equipment especially
in the early years, and there were some telegrams which were never
successfully filmed. I don't know of any way to quantify the extent
of the problem, but I do know that the FRUS historians have been
unable to find a few telegrams which they thought might be significant.
The telegrams are basically unarranged and unsearchable as they
appear on the reels except by the numbers in the File Number of
the Message Attributes.
in State Department goals for transfers of the Central Foreign
The State Department's original plan for declassification and
transfer of the Central Foreign Policy Files was to transfer everything
for each year at once: electronic telegrams, electronic microfilm
index entries, and paper copies of the microfilmed documents.
The Department expected to schedule the review so that it could
reach EO 12958's 25-year goal by the end of 2006, with each year
transferred when it was fully review and declassified. That would
mean the transfer of everything through 1981 by December 31 of
this year. Recently, however, the State Department scaled back
that goal. At the December 2005 meeting of the Historical Advisory
Committee, State announced that it would curtail the production
and review of paper printouts after the release of the databases
for 1975. Under the Executive Order's guidelines for declassification
review of records on non-paper media, the Department has the right
to a three-year extension of the declassification deadline, which
means that the 1976-1981 materials as well as any 1974 and 1975
documents microfilmed after 1976 may not be available until 2009.
According to one NARA staffer, "The HAC did not seem to realize
the significance of the December announcement, but perhaps when
they do State will revisit its decision."
* The editor thanks NARA officials for invaluable information
and insights on the new databases.
Sample Cables from 1973 and 1974 Databases
1: U.S. Embassy Santiago Cable 4728 to State Department, "Attempt
Coup," 29 June 1973, Confidential
According to this report from Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, on
the morning of 29 June, elements of the military loyal to President
Salvador Allende tried to arrest officers who were engaged in
a coup plot against the Socialist Unity government. That attempt
temporarily backfired when the plotters, led by Lt. Col. Souper,
detained those who were trying to arrest them and led tanks and
troops to the presidential palace and the Defense Ministry. As
the cable shows, the coup attempt collapsed when loyal forces
led by General Prat surrounded the plotters and forced them to
surrender. The next significant coup plot, in September 1973,
could not be foiled and the Allende government fell to a generals'
coup, which led to a bloodbath.
2a and b: On the Eve of the October War
2a: State Department Cable 194280 to Embassy Tel Aviv, "Rumored
Egyptian Military Alert," 30 September 1973, Secret, Exdis
2b: Embassy Tel Aviv cable 7570 to State Department, "Rumored
Egyptian Military Alert and Syrian Military Activity,"
30 September 1973, Secret, Exdis
In late September 1973, rumors of war in the Middle East circulated
and senior U.S. officials wondered if conflict was impending.
Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco queried Ambassador Keating,
who reported that the U.S. Defense Attaché saw a Syrian
attack as improbable. None of the Embassy's sources saw anything
alarming. A massive intelligence failure became apparent when
Syrian and Egyptian forces attacked Israel early on 6 October
3: Department of State Cable 109189 to U.S. Consulate Jerusalem,
24 May 1974, Secret, Exdis
A few days after India's nuclear test on 18 May 1974 U.S. Ambassador
Daniel P. Moynihan sent the Department his assessment of the situation.
Kissinger was in Jerusalem for talks with the Israelis and the
Department forwarded it to him. A bit obsequious, by crediting
Secretary of State Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Schlesinger
with so much foresight in anticipating the Indian bomb, Moynihan
supported the Department's moderate response, arguing that Washington
should give "a good dose of thought to how [India's] interests
and ours may be accommodated, and taking emphatic steps to bring
about [an] accommodation." For Moynihan, the central problem
in world politics during the 1970s was not further nuclear proliferation
but finding ways to solve the slowdown of growth in the West:
"whether a world system can be contrived in which the surplus
capital being accumulated by the oil producing countries is invested
in countries such as India, using technology and goods purchased
from the West."
4: Department of State Cable 114183 to JCS/SecDef/CIA, "Morning
Summary of Significant Events," 31 May 1974, Secret, Exdis
As a routine service to the Pentagon and the CIA, the State Department
sent a daily summary of significant information gleaned by U.S.
embassies and reported in cable traffic. Some of this information
may have been picked up for use in the CIA's President's Daily
Brief. Information reported on 31 May included reports on governmental
changes in France and Thailand, China-Soviet border talks, an
Argentine-India nuclear agreement, Indonesia's role on the international
commission supervising the cease-fire in Vietnam, and a summary
of former Prime Minister Heath's conversations with the Chinese.
Heath reported that Mao was "well," Zhou Enlai "not
so well" and Deng Xiaoping was "an able replacement"
for Zhou if that became necessary.
5: U.S. Interests Section Baghdad cable 898 to State Department,
"U.S. Policy on Iran-Iraq Conflict," 23 December 1974,
During the mid-1970s, Iran, with clandestine support from the
CIA, supported the Kurdish insurgency against the Baathist regime
in Iraq. With Iranian forces getting more heavily involved in
the conflict, the chief of the U.S. interests section, Arthur
L. Lowrie, worried that the situation might get out of hand and
disrupt regional stability. He saw some possibility that the Iraqi
regime "for all of its abhorrent traits" could turn
out to be rather different if it followed a "twin policy
of development and rapprochement." Further, "the Kurdish
leadership is fighting hopeless battle," and no one wants
them "to succeed." Lowrie recommended the "strongest
possible demarche to Shah to determine extent to which US and
Iranian interests conflict in this matter and how they might be
reconciled." Within months the Shah had taken steps to end
the conflict with Iraq and support for the Kurds was abruptly
terminated; the cable traffic from 1975, once released, may shed
light on how the agreement came about.
6: Embassy Phnom Penh cable 17096 to State Department, "Lon
Non's Plans," 26 December 1974, Secret, Exdis
Brigadier General Lon Non was the "little brother"
of Lon Nol, who ruled Cambodia from 1970 until the collapse of
his regime in the spring of 1975. As Kenton Clymer shows in his
prize-winning study, The United States and Cambodia, 1970-2000,
U.S. officials saw Lon Non as a bad actor; according to a 1973
U.S. embassy assessment, while Lon Non displayed "unusual
energy and initiative," he was "restrained by neither
good political judgment nor moral scruples." The embassy
had cut him off from access to U.S. equipment apparently because
he siphoned it off for his own purposes. Reportedly Lon Non had
his own assassination squad and he was suspected of instigating
violent attacks, including assassination attempts, on political
opponents. Moreover, embassy officials thought that Lon Non was
behind a 1972 attempt to murder the U.S. Chargé Thomas
Enders. In 1973, as part of a U.S.-sponsored attempt to broaden
the Lon Nol government, Lon Non was hustled out of the country,
but when he returned the State Department worried that he would
start causing trouble again. John Gunther Dean, the U.S. ambassador,
dismissed the "hand-wringing telegrams" from the Department:
"This problem could have been avoided if those responsible
for looking after Lon Non in the States had done their job effectively."
When the regime fell, Lon Nol fled but "little brother"
stayed behind and the Khmer Rouge executed him.