William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863-1910

Article excerpt

Theoharis, Athan G., ed. A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People's Right to Know. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. 245 pp. $29.95.

This collection of essays examines the disturbing and surprisingly routine methods used by federal intelligence agencies and presidents to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act. Contributing scholars, journalists and attorneys review important cases in which presidents, the State Department, and agencies such as the CIA, NSA, NSC, and FBI have used absurd bureaucratic methods to avoid disclosure and expand the boundaries of secrecy.

Simultaneously depressing and inspiring, Theoharis's book shows the strength and persistence of the historical community in extracting information from the federal government. For example, in Theoharis's chapter, "The FOIA Versus the FBI," and in Anna Kasten Nelson's chapter, "The John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board," the role of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians in the congressional creation of the Assassination Records Review Board is encouraging.

Overall, however, the costs and frustration of the pursuit of historical accuracy presented in Theoharis's book are daunting. Attitudes toward disclosure change with every new presidential administration, and regardless of occasional tendencies toward openness, the actions of agency directors repeatedly result in "sanitized records and a process that effectively delays or discourages research involving important issues, movements, and personalities." For example, even though Bill Clinton and Janet Reno showed an early propensity for more openness in disclosure of government records, the president soon insisted that National Security Council records were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because it is not an agency but a group of personal advisers. …