Joint Staff Letter, 25 January 1993, Regarding the "Destruction of Recorded Minutes of the Meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff"

28 February 1994

The attached document tells a horror story in the annals of government information and accountability. In August 1974, the Joint Chiefs of Staff destroyed all the minutes and transcripts of their meetings going back to 1947, and in 1978 essentially stopped keeping any such records. Only 30 pages of notes have survived, much to the dismay of military historians and scholars of the Cold War. (Needless to say, we have already filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the 30 pages.)

The events of August 1974 provide interesting context for the JCS action. President Nixon was leaving office under the "smoking gun" of a Watergate tape. Congress had passed new pro-disclosure amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which would go into effect later that fall over President Ford's veto.

In the context of the end of the Cold War, the JCS action sets a terrible precedent for openness in government internationally -- an area in which the United States claims leadership and should set the highest possible standard. Instead, the JCS behavior is all too reminiscent of the stories we've heard over and over in the past two years of our cooperative work with Eastern European and Russian researchers: General Jaruzelski in Poland destroying several hundred transcripts of Politburo meetings and many other documents when Solidarity won the elections of 1989, Markus Wolf of the Stasi destroying thousands of intelligence files as soon as the Berlin Wall fell, etc.

Bill Burr and Matt Shellenbarger of our staff made some phone calls and came up with the name of the apparent villain in this case -- then-Brigadier General Gerald E. Cooke, who served as Secretary of the JCS in August 1974. We haven't been able to track him further. The Joint Chiefs in August 1974 included as chairman, Gen. George Brown (USAF), and as members, Adm. James Holloway (USN), Gen. David Jones (USAF), Gen. Creighton Abrams (USA), and Gen. Robert Cushman Jr. (USMC).

The fact that the JCS horror story has come to light does represent a glimmer of hope, however. Two years ago a staffer at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) noticed a footnote in an obscure naval history journal which suggested that the JCS minutes had been disposed of in the 1970's. NARA then initiated a series of letters to the JCS asking for an explanation, which led to the document at hand. Since only about three per cent of the U.S. government's records are ultimately preserved for posterity, decisions about the destruction or retention of records are extremely difficult. All too often, as in the JCS example and in the more recent example of the White House electronic mail, the bureaucratic self-interest of the agency involved carries the day, overriding the statutory obligation to preserve records of historical, legal, administrative or evidentiary significance. The bottom line is: Unless we reinvent the National Archives and Records Administration as an activist, visionary information watchdog, it will be relegated to the role of the nation's attic; and there, among the cobwebs, will roam the ghost of government accountability.

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