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Freedom of Information Follies: FOIA Reviewers Declassify Same Rwanda Document Four Times, Creating New Secrets Each Time

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 420

Posted - April 3, 2013

Edited by Michael Dobbs

For more information contact:
Michael Dobbs 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Related Links

The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994: The Assassination of the Presidents and the Beginning of the "Apocalypse"
April 7, 2004

The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994: Information, Intelligence and the U.S. Response
March 24, 2004

The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994: Evidence of Inaction
August 20, 2001

 


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Washington, D.C., April 3, 2013 – The U.S. government's Freedom of Information Act reviewers produced four different versions of the same State Department document over a 12-year period, releasing different information each time, according to the National Security Archive's posting today of the documents obtained by author and journalist Michael Dobbs.

The case provides a dramatic illustration of why the US declassification system is broken – and less information is being released over time – with tangible evidence of how four different FOIA reviewers between 2001 and 2012 handled the same document on the Rwanda genocide.


Click to see full side-by-side comparison.

The document in question was signed by Toby Gati, head of the State Department intelligence unit, INR, on May 18, 1994, one and a half months into the genocide. It addresses a question that was highly controversial at the time: should the U.S. government use the "G-word" to describe events in Rwanda?

The Gati document paved the way for a major switch in U.S. government policy. Three days later, on May 21, Secretary of State Warren Christopher authorized his subordinates to use the formulation "acts of genocide have occurred" in Rwanda. Prior to that date, U.S. officials had refrained from using the term "genocide" for fear that it might compel the Clinton administration to take action to stop the killing. The Gati document accuses the then-Rwandan government of "widespread, systematic killing of ethnic Tutsis" in violation of the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention of Genocide.

The FOIA trail on the document is indicative of a vast duplication of effort on the part of the U.S. declassification bureaucracy. The same documents are reviewed over and over again with more recent reviews often resulting in the attempted withholding of information that has previously been released a decade, or even two decades, ago. There often seems little logic to redaction decisions, which depend on the whim of the individual reviewer, with no appreciation of either the passage of time or the interests of history and accountability.

The Gati memo is an excellent example of the dysfunctional nature of the declassification system. An unredacted version of the memo was released by the State Department to the National Security Archive in 2001, and posted on the Archive's website to accompany the award-winning account of the Rwandan genocide written by Samantha Power for The Atlantic magazine. Four years later, in 2005, the same document was entered into evidence by the Rwanda War Crimes tribunal.

 


The Documents

State Department 2003 version

The first re-review of the document took place in 2003, when the State Department (reviewer Charles Daris) released a new version of the document, omitting the final paragraph for "national security reasons (B1)" [the first exemption to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act]. The paragraph in question has no identifiable U.S. national security information.

State Department 2007 version

Another State Department official (Herman Kirby) re-reviewed the document in 2007. He released the paragraph withdrawn in 2003, but redacted a section on the first page, expressing doubts about the size of the Rwandan death toll, as "privileged intra agency communication" (B5) [the fifth exemption to the FOIA].

Clinton Library 2012 version

In 2012, the Clinton Presidential Library released a fourth version of the document, restoring the redacted section on the first page, but deleting the final paragraph for "national security reasons."

National Security Archive 2001 version

A reading of the unredacted document released in 2001 demonstrates the spuriousness of the "national security" and "privileged intra agency communication" redactions. The last three re-reviews of the same document are clearly superfluous and a waste of taxpayer money. Sadly, this is typical of what happens to many documents, despite repeated Obama administration pledges to improve the declassification process.

 


Michael Dobbs is research director of the "Never Again" project, a partnership between the National Security Archive and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, seeking to document modern genocides and draw lessons for genocide prevention. Former chief diplomatic correspondent at the Washington Post, Dobbs is the author of the Cold War trilogy: Six Months in 1945 (on the division of Europe after World War II), One Minute to Midnight (on the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War), and Down with Big Brother (on the collapse of the Soviet empire).

 

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