Timothy L. Ericson presented his presidential address at the 2004 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Boston, Massachusetts.  Ericson was university archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1989-2005), Georgia Archives Institute instructor (2005-2011), interim university archivist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (2009-2010), commissioner for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (2009-2013), and senior lecturer emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies (2005-present).  His personal papers are housed at the University of Wisconsin.  The full version of this article was published in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of the American Archivist.  (An abbreviated “reading version” of the address is also available on the SAA website.)

Ericson began with a clear argument: “today the tilt toward secrecy permeates our entire system of government from the White House to the local school board” (18).  He provided numerous relatively contemporary examples of government secrecy and then launched into a very thorough analysis of “the history of our secrecy apparatus,” which he divided into three eras and asserted is primarily a long history of lurching from one crisis to another, responding in a panicked fashion (22).


Secrecy began with the First Continental Congress as an effort to portray unity (and perhaps limit the charges of treason if things didn’t turn out well!).  Then in 1784 Congress “ruled that all diplomatic correspondence was automatically considered secret” (25).  A Frenchman who visited the United States during the 1830s surmised that Americans had very little interest in public documents — Alexis de Tocqueville was actually frequently given original documents to answer his questions.  He described American society as one living “from hand to mouth, like an army in the field” (28).


The British introduced a formal classification system during the Crimean War, and the United States adopted our first one during World War One, outlining “in considerable detail the levels of secrecy, marking classified documents, storage of such documents, and who would have access to classified material” (33).  In between World War One and World War Two, the U.S. covered nondefense information under the classifications, introduced the terms “national security” and “reclassification” (i.e., “the process of lowering the classification of a document and prohibited revealing information ‘about the contents of classified documents . . . in any other document unless that document was marked with the same or higher classification'” [35-36]), and allowed for information to be classified if it might be harmful to the “‘prestige of the Nation'” (36).


This final era was punctuated by executive orders that provided additional parameters to national security interests and governmental transparency exceptions.  Under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the three levels of classification were established — secret, confidential, and restricted.  The 1946 Atomic Energy Act introduced the term “born classified.”  Truman added the level “Top Secret” in 1950.  The number of federal employees who exercised the authority to classify information ranged from 3,000 – 60,000 during this era.  Under Jimmy Carter a “balancing test” was introduced that “weighed the public’s right to know against the government’s need to protect national security” — but this was rescinded under Reagan (41).  This same executive order also established the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives.

This era was not devoid of progress regarding access to public records.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966 and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.  Ericson uncovered a gem from the congressional debate on this bill, quoting a young congressman from Illinois who said, “‘public records, which are evidence of official government action, are public property, and there . . . should be a positive obligation to disclose this information upon request'” (43).  This congressman was Donald Rumsfeld.

I’ve provided a very truncated summary of the history of these eras, so I encourage you to read Ericson’s work in toto.  But two key things stand out to me about these eras:

  1. The preponderance of limitations on government accountability occurred during times of war (so long as you consider the Cold War as a very long era of wartime attitude — and since Ericson uses a Cold War metaphor in his title, I think it’s an appropriate conclusion).  Supreme Court Justice William Brennan recognized “’the unfortunate American tendency to panic in the face of national crisis and to countenance infringements of civil liberties that would appear intolerable during times of repose’” (26).
  2. We haven’t gotten much better about planning ahead than we were in the 1830s when de Tocqueville visited.  At least we do now have a National Archives, but it took us almost 150 years longer than it took the French!  And we didn’t even develop a system for numbering executive orders until the early 20th century.

Ericson summarized that this “secrecy apparatus” has stoked rivalries between government agencies that use secrets as “currency,” ultimately leading to “ill-informed decisions” (44).  (As an historical note: The 9/11 Commission Report, which documented such situations, was published on July 22, 2004, two weeks before Ericson’s address was delivered at the SAA meeting.)  He also asserted the unnecessarily “bloated” system racks up huge costs (45).  He concluded that secrecy in government “serves the interests of politics, malfeasance, misdeeds, and potential embarrassment more than our national security” (50).  He contended that this situation has occurred “because of the casual attitude Americans have taken with regard to the growing trend toward secrecy—but also because of the lackadaisical attitude that the archival profession has taken” (51).

Ericson questioned the appropriate response of archivists to such efforts at secrecy, challenging, “Why have we not been more zealous in embracing our ethical responsibility to ‘discourage unreasonable restrictions on access’ with respect to government records that are being unreasonably restricted by the millions?” (21).  He cited SAA’s 1986 Task Force on Goals and Priorities along with the work of fellow archivists Mary Jo Pugh, F. Gerald Ham, and James O’Toole for evidence that archivists should advocate for fewer restrictions.

Ericson concluded there are four steps archivists should take:

  1. Educate ourselves.  At professional meetings, in newsletters and journals, and in archival courses, we need to talk about government secrecy and accountability.
  2. Create formal working relationships with other organizations who have a vested interest in government accountability.  Ericson pointed to the American Civil Liberties Union, ISOO, the National Security Archive, OMB Watch, Public Citizen, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Federation of American Scientists.
  3. Take action as individual archivists.  Ericson acknowledged that archivists frequently make decisions about providing or denying access to records, so we need to use our experience and “become advocates for open records and speak out against abuses” (52).
  4. Position ourselves as outspoken activists.  Ericson suggested we should “make activism a priority and position ourselves as a profession that really is interested in and knowledgeable about issues such as access to government records and their value to maintaining our civil liberties” (52).

In its 1988 resolution that served as an official apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, Congress concluded that Executive Order 9066 “‘was motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership'” (39).  May the archival community take up Ericson’s challenge and act in ways that our leadership cannot be so questioned.