H-Diplo Forum 2021-1
The Argentina Declassification Project: A Model of “Declassification Diplomacy” to Advance Human Rights—and History
16 September 2021 | https://hdiplo.org/to/Forum-2021-1
Chair: Peter Kornbluh | Commissioning Editor: Carlos Osorio
Editors: Peter Kornbluh, Carlos Osorio, and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii
This forum is available via https://hdiplo.org/to/Forum-2021-1. We include below an editorial note and the introduction.
- Introduction by Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive
- Benjamin N. Gedan on “President Barack Obama and the Origins of the Argentina Declassification Project”
- Sara Berndt and Keri Lewis on “Declassification Diplomacy: An Inside Perspective”
- Ellen Knight on “My Introduction to the ADP”
- Sofia Machado on “The Argentina Declassification Project: the U.S. Government Response to a Historical Argentine Demand”
- Carlos Osorio on “The Argentina Declassification Project: The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations”
- Silvia R. Tandeciarz on “Memory Work at William & Mary: Amplifying the Argentina Declassification Project through Undergraduate Research”
- John Powers on “Reflections on Leading the U.S. Declassification Project for Argentina: Challenges, Triumphs, and Lessons for the Future”
- “United States (U.S.) Declassification Diplomacy with Argentina: A Timeline” by Tyler J. Goldberger and Carlos Osorio
“I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency.”
--President Barack Obama, publicly announcing a special declassification project to release secret documents on Argentina, 23 March 2016
On 12 April 2019, more than 100 archivists, records management officials, Argentine diplomats, right-to-know advocates, and family members of human rights victims in Argentina, gathered in a reception room of the National Archives and Records Administration headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the first official “Declassification Diplomacy” ceremony ever held by the U.S. government. Normally, the declassification of U.S. documents is an unheralded, bureaucratic affair; but the formal release of highly detailed U.S. intelligence records on the “dirty war” of repression in Argentina carried the gravitas of a major human rights event. In his welcoming remarks, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, addressed the victims’ families in the audience, whose loved ones are among the estimated 30,000 who were ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the Argentine military regime between 1976 and 1983. “Using archival records, this project was designed to help families of victims find closure, peace and justice, ensure accountability and aid judicial processes,” he stated. The archival records being released, Ferriero affirmed, “help tell the story of this period in Argentine history--and in our history.” 
The ceremony marked the official culmination of the Argentina Declassification Project (ADP). Over three years, several hundred archivists, analysts, Freedom of Information Act officers, and records managers, representing 16 different government agencies, devoted over 30,000 hours to identify and process approximately 47,000 pages of CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, State Department and White House documents—resulting in an extraordinary addition to the historical record of repression in Argentina. At the poignant “Declassification Diplomacy” ceremony held at the National Archives, U.S. officials turned over the final tranche of some 6000 documents to representatives of the Argentine government. An accompanying letter from President Donald Trump to Argentine President Mauricio Macri declared that this special release “constitutes the largest declassification of United States Government records directly to a foreign government in history.”
Beyond its size, the ADP was historic for several key reasons. First, in its content the documentation was the most revelatory of any recent discretionary declassification project. Unlike most declassified intelligence files, which are normally swathed in black redactions to protect sources and methods, the ADP documents were minimally censored. Many of them named names—including the names of the secret police perpetrators of heinous human rights crimes and even the names of the secret sources of the information in the document. Second, in terms of its conduct, the Project was the most participatory and transparent. Under the extraordinary leadership of the National Security Council’s then Director for Access and Information Management, John Powers, U.S. officials respectfully incorporated the participation of all the key stakeholders in the ADP, among them the Argentine Embassy in Washington and the human rights organizations in Buenos Aires which, for years, have sought the truth, accountability, and closure for human rights crimes that these secret documents could potentially provide. Powers also reached out to “a vital resource,” the National Security Archive’s Argentina specialist Carlos Osorio, recruiting him as an essential non-governmental organization (NGO) partner for the project.
Finally, in its mission to advance the historical record as well as the cause of human rights, the ADP was the most avowedly conscientious—and successful—of any U.S. government declassification project. In an effort to motivate the dozens of U.S. declassifiers working on the project, Powers repeatedly reminded them of the “real difference” to history and human rights they were making. “Not only were they helping the U.S. improve its diplomatic ties with Argentina, they were helping other human beings,” he told them. “Potentially, they could help bring closure to the family of a missing victim, solve crimes, aid in the prosecution of torturers, and identify parents who illegally adopted a baby after the biological parents were killed. They were bringing history to life,” he recounts in his book-length essay—the centerpiece of this H-Diplo publication—on how the ADP came to successful fruition. Powers assured them that “their work would help all Argentinians learn and understand the horror of the Dirty War so that they would not allow this history to repeat itself.”
Indeed, the ADP’s unique combination of comprehensiveness, transparency, inclusivity, and sheer professional dedication to declassifying long-held and highly classified secrets of state set a new gold standard for U.S. Government declassification projects. Moreover, the ADP has established an invaluable model of “declassification diplomacy”—a relatively recent new tool of U.S. foreign policy-making that utilizes the special declassification of documents to advance diplomatic relations with other nations. A full understanding and appreciation of the success of the ADP and the lessons it holds is critical for emulating this model of “declassification diplomacy” in the future.
That is the intention of this special H-Diplo publication. Organized by Carlos Osorio (my esteemed colleague at the National Security Archive), this collection of essays constitutes a comprehensive debriefing by the key players—both the U.S. government insiders as well as the outside stakeholders—who participated in this unique and consequential project. Their writings address, and answer, numerous critical questions: How did the ADP evolve? What obstacles in the secrecy bureaucracy did it encounter? How were those obstacles overcome? What factors contributed to the success of the ADP? And what are the lessons to be learned in order to replicate it in the future? “I would have liked to have conducted a detailed interagency ‘lessons learned’ exercise after the final release,” Powers laments in his essay, addressing the lack of an internal, after-action review when the ADP concluded. “Had that occurred,” he writes, “collectively we would have been able to identify different ways of moving forward for the next project.” These essays, however, more than fill that void for forthcoming U.S. government approaches to ADP-style projects; and they will provide future officials, policy actors, academics, and right-to-know activists with a detailed, multi-faceted assessment of how the project began, progressed, and dramatically concluded.
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Equally significant, these essays illuminate the actual practice of “declassification diplomacy” in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, and its invaluable impact. In his essay on the genesis of the ADP, Benjamin Gedan explains how President Obama transformed a political uproar over the ill-conceived timing of his March 2016 visit to Buenos Aires into a major, and meaningful, diplomatic gesture by authorizing the opening of U.S. intelligence archives to expose the secrets of Argentina’s dark and sinister past. The Obama White House had inadvertently scheduled his trip on the 40th anniversary of the bloody military coup, triggering extensive protests from human rights groups and threats of street demonstrations against his presence. “Given the controversy over the date of Obama’s visit, and the president’s comfort addressing the U.S. legacy in Latin America with transparency and candor, we decided to incorporate the coup d’état anniversary in the president’s agenda,” Gedan recounts, noting that “as it turned out, it was a highlight of the trip.”
Working behind the scenes, Obama’s team arranged a joint anniversary visit with President Macri to the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires, to pay tribute to the victims of repression during the dictatorship. In a display of diplomatic dexterity, Obama used that opportunity to dramatically announce the special declassification project. “[W]e wanted to make a meaningful contribution to Argentina’s efforts to grapple with its difficult history and investigate and prosecute human rights abusers,” Gedan recalls. “To do so,” he explains, “we launched an ambitious campaign to declassify U.S. government records related to the ‘Dirty War,’ including, for the first time, military and intelligence records.”
On 20 June2016, the White House Situation Room distributed a “tasker” to key U.S. national security agencies, ordering them to locate, review, and declassify secret intelligence records on repression during the era of dictatorship in Argentina. Formally titled “Argentina Declassification Project: Tasking Information and Schedule,” the directive was drafted by Powers. “Agency staff conducting searches should err on the side of inclusiveness and provide all documents pertaining to human rights abuses related to Argentina,” the tasker stated. “In reviewing documents, the President has directed that agencies release as much information as possible. Public disclosure is in the foreign policy interest of the United States.”
But even as the ADP was getting started, the diplomatic use of the documents as currency in U.S. foreign policy continued. Only five weeks after the tasker was distributed to the agencies, Powers relates in his essay, Secretary of State John Kerry’s office requested that an initial tranche of declassified records be finalized for him to personally provide to President Macri as part of a new “U.S.-Argentina High Level Dialogue” meeting in early August 2016. A few weeks later, the Argentine Embassy informed the State Department that their government would hold a ceremony on 10 December 2016—International Human Rights Day—to honor the late Patricia Derian, who had done so much for Argentine victims of repression during her tenure as the first Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. Powers arranged for a second tranche of records to be released specifically to contribute to the success of that function. And in March 2017, when Macri became the first head of state to visit the Trump White House, the documents played a key role in his reception, as well as cementing Trump’s rare support for continuing an Obama-initiated project in his new administration. As Powers writes: “Luckily, in looking for a deliverable for Macri’s visit to the White House, the president liked the idea of providing Macri with newly declassified records.”
Even before the majority of the documents were processed for release, as these essays make clear, the ADP created a foundation for positive U.S.-Argentine bilateral ties. In secure video conferences with the U.S. Ambassador to Buenos Aires, according to Powers, U.S. officials were told that “this project was the single most important action the U.S. government was undertaking to improve relations” with Argentina. “Because of what it represents to Argentina, both to its government and its people, the declassification project, and my work on it have been one of the most humbling and rewarding professional and personal experience of my diplomatic career,” notes the first secretary of the Argentine Embassy, Sofia Machado, in her essay. “I learned about the power of diplomacy and how declassification can support international relations,” writes Ellen Knight, who replaced Powers as director of the ADP in 2018. She notes that “the project was transformative in the way it reignited bilateral relations between the U.S. and Argentina.”
In her essay, Knight recounts organizing the major “Declassification Diplomacy” event on 12 April 2019 when the final, and largest, tranche of revelatory records were officially presented to Argentina’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Germán Garavano. I was privileged to be among the invited guests. And I can honestly say it was the most powerful U.S. government function I have ever witnessed.
Those who worked on the project felt the same. “I remember the ceremony as being extraordinarily moving,” Knight recalls; “Audience members, including myself, were visibly overwhelmed by the speeches given and stories told. Tears poured down many faces during stories of how the declassification of these records would finally bring truth and justice to many families in Argentina who still had not received any information about the disappearance of their loved ones more than 40 years ago.” In many cases, as Carlos Osorio reminded the audience in his poignant presentation, “the U.S. documents being turned over today to Argentina are, and will be, the only evidence of the fate of so many Argentinians at the hands of the military dictatorship.”
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Indeed, since their release two years ago, Osorio points out in his essay, “the documents have been extremely valuable in Argentina’s ongoing quest for justice, truth, and dignity for thousands of human rights victims and their families.” The declassified collection has contributed to a number of ongoing human rights investigations in Argentina. One CIA intelligence report on a disappeared diplomat, as Sofia Machado reminds us, contained the actual street address of the secret detention center where he had been taken, tortured, and presumably killed—a detail that enabled an Argentine judge to locate, after decades of searching, what is believed to be the very first clandestine torture facility established by the secret police after the coup. A team of human rights investigators from the Ministerio Publico Fiscal, the office of the public prosecutor, has evaluated every document, paying close attention to the perpetrators who are named, as well as the identities and agencies of the sources of information. Osorio’s office at the National Security Archive also continues to evaluate the records for their evidentiary value and newsworthiness; the Archive has posted key selections of ADP documents on its website, generating media coverage around the world. Osorio continues to oversee a special joint project conducted by undergraduates at William & Mary, as Professor Silvia R. Tandeciarz explains in her essay, to create a comprehensive data base of the records, which will facilitate their future accessibility for legal investigators, researchers, reporters, historians, and students in the future. Already, according to Osorio, the growing index is being shared as a research tool with key human rights agencies, among them the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, and the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria, advancing the causes of truth, justice, and dignity in the Southern Cone.
Now, with the help of H-Diplo, the ADP enters a phase of self-assessment. Read together, these detailed essays from the veterans of the ADP highlight its precedent-setting value; like the documents themselves, these writings advance the historical record. Indeed, these recollections will be critical to current and future foreign policy actors and human rights activists who see the ADP as a model to be emulated, and seek to perfect the process for the next “declassification diplomacy” effort. “We hope that the success of this project—including the volume and transparency of the declassified records, its positive impact on U.S.-Argentine relations, its relatively low cost, and the way it demonstrated the longstanding U.S. commitment to human rights and justice—will encourage U.S. government officials to embark upon similar projects in the coming years,” write State Department officials Sara Berndt and Keri Lewis in their assessment of the ADP.
But the final word goes to John Powers, who deserves special recognition for his meticulous, dedicated, and conscientious supervision of the ADP. “[T]his story can serve as both a roadmap and a cautionary tale for the next officials who lead a large Government-wide declassification project,” he concludes. “I hope that this narrative will serve in essence as a lessons-learned history of the project.”
Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba, Chile, and Brazil Documentation Projects at the National Security Archive where he has worked as a senior analyst since 1986. He is the author and co-author of several books, among them The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (The New Press, ); Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (with William M. LeoGrande University of North Carolina Press, 2014); The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History with Malcolm Byrne (The New Press, 1993) and Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba (The New Press, 1998). His articles have been published in Politico, The Nation, Cigar Aficionado, Foreign Policy, The New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and many other journals and newspapers. In September 2016, Kornbluh published an essay in the Washington Post on the Obama administration’s “new tool of diplomacy: declassified documents” in which he coined the phrase “declassification diplomacy.”
Sara E. Berndt is an historian at the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian. Since 2010, she has provided research and other historical support to policymakers, and compiled and edited documents on U.S.-Latin American relations for inclusion in the 150-year-old Foreign Relations of the United States series. Her Foreign Relations volume on U.S. policy in South America during the Jimmy Carter administration was published in 2018. She earned her Ph.D. in Latin American history from the George Washington University in 2011 and her B.A. in history with honors from the University of Chicago in 2000.
Benjamin N. Gedan is deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is a former South America director on the National Security Council at the White House. Previously, he was responsible for Honduras and Argentina at the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Gedan is a former Fulbright scholar in Uruguay, and earned a Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He graduated from Tufts University with a Bachelor’s in international relations, and received a Master’s in international economics and Latin American studies from SAIS. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. As a Latin America scholar, he has published analyses in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and Foreign Policy, and his insights have been quoted by The New York Times, NPR, CNN, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and the BBC.
Tyler J. Goldberger is a History Ph.D. student at William & Mary. His research focuses on historical memory, concentrating on place, space, and cultural productions following civil wars and human rights violations in the United States, Spain, and Latin America. In particular, he investigates the roles of monuments, memorials, and mausoleums in shifting the political and cultural landscapes of regions attempting to commemorate and reconcile their pasts. He has incorporated public history and digital humanities methodologies into his scholarship in order to make his work more widely accessible. Tyler earned his MA in History from William & Mary in 2020 and BA in History and Spanish from Duke University in 2019.
Ellen Knight is a seventeen-year career professional of the Federal Government with expertise in policy development, information management, and information security. She currently serves as a Policy Analyst in the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer at the Office of Budget and Management in the Executive Office of the President. Previously she served as Senior Director for the Records Access and Information Security Directorate at the National Security Council, where she was responsible to the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs as the subject matter expert on all matters related to White House and NSC programs for information management, classification, and declassification review. Ellen began her tenure at the NSC first as Director for Access Management, where she led the completion of the Argentina Declassification Project. Prior to her time at the NSC, Ellen served as a Senior Program Analyst at the Information Security Oversight Office, where she focused on developing security classification policies and conducting government-wide oversight for classifying, declassifying, and safeguarding national security information. She also served as an Archivist at the National Archives, where she reviewed the Nixon tapes for public access. Ellen spent time in the Intelligence Community as an Archivist at the National Security Agency, where she worked in the Policy and Records Division. Ellen holds a master’s degree in Library Science from the School of Information Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in Public Management at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland College Park.
Keri Lewis is Director, Office of Access and Information Security Management, National Security Council. She has fifteen years of experience in information management, policy, and security working for both the National Security Council and the Department of State. She currently leads a team of analysts responsible for the review and declassification of White House and NSC records for public access as the Director for Access and Information Security Management, an office in which she served previously during both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations. Keri also served at the Department of State in several capacities, including as a Branch Chief in the FOIA Division and as the lead coordinator for several significant declassification initiatives—specifically, as the Project Manager for the Argentina Declassification Project, the lead declassification coordinator for the Foreign Relations of the United States series, and as the Department of State Liaison to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. Keri received her Ph.D. in History from the University of New Hampshire in 2008.
First Secretary Sofia Machado is a career diplomat currently serving in the Human Rights Bureau of Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship. From March 2015 to January 2021, she was posted to the Embassy of Argentina in Washington D.C. where she served in the Political Affairs Section and was in charge of the human rights portfolio, among other issues relevant to the Argentina-US bilateral agenda. Previously, from 2014 to 2015, she worked at the Foreign Ministry’s Office of the Undersecretary for Latin American Economic Integration and MERCOSUR and from 2012 to 2014 at the Bureau of MERCOSUR’s Economic Affairs. She joined the Foreign Service in 2010. Secretary Machado holds a bachelor’s degree in International Trade (2007) and a Master of Arts in Global Policy from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) - The Johns Hopkins University (2018)
Carlos Osorio is the National Security Archive’s director of the Southern Cone Documentation Project. Carlos’s work has helped bring about the release of thousands of documents into the public record and contributed directly to high profile trials and human rights memory projects in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and elsewhere. Most recently, he served as an adviser to the U.S. government’s Argentina Declassification Project, begun under President Obama in 2016 and continued under President Trump, which by 2019 had turned over more than 7,000 previously classified records – 48,000 pages – to the government of Argentina.
Documents he obtained and authenticated provided key evidence and multiple convictions in the 2015 and 2016 trials on Operation Condor in Buenos Aires and Rome, respectively; in the 2012 case against former Argentina dictators Videla and Bignone in the infamous baby kidnapping case; and in the landmark trial of former Uruguayan dictator Juan Bordaberry, convicted in 2010 on human rights charges for overthrowing the constitution. He has also provided authenticated documentary evidence for dozens of current prosecutions in Argentina including the Campo de Mayo cases and the Operation Condor prosecution. In 2015, Carlos received a special award from the Argentine Embassy in Washington “for his contribution in the fight for human rights during the Argentine civic-military dictatorship.”
John Powers is the Associate Director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He leads a team of analysts in advising Government agencies on policies for classifying, declassifying, and safeguarding national security information. He manages the work of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, the Government’s highest appellate body for resolving classification and declassification determinations. John also serves as the senior staff officer for the Public Interest Declassification Board, an independent board tasked with making recommendations to improve the security classification system. Under his leadership, the Board published four reports to the President, including most recently, A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernization of the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification System.
Previously, John served for 38 months as the Director for Access and Information Management on the National Security Council staff at the White House. He led a team responsible for reviewing and declassifying White House and NSC records for public access, including records for the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States series. He conceived of and led the U.S. Declassification Project for Argentina that involved 16 other departments and agencies. John also co-led the interagency process that resulted in the declassification of historical President’s Daily Briefs from the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations. John began his NARA career in 1991 as an archives aid at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, eventually serving as the Acting Director in 2007. He archivally processed and declassified the Nixon tapes and Nixon’s NSC papers and spent two years at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library declassifying LBJ’s secret recordings. John has a B.A. in International Relations from the College of William & Mary and a M.A. in American History from George Mason University.
Silvia R. Tandeciarz is Chancellor Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at William & Mary, where she has worked since 1999. A public facing humanities scholar in the field of Latin American Cultural Studies, she has published widely on the intersections between memorial and human rights initiatives in the Americas. Her most recent book, Citizens of Memory: Affect, Representation, and Human Rights in Postdictatorship Argentina (Bucknell University Press, 2017) studies how remembrance, redress, and social justice inform recovery from collective trauma. As an extension of her research interests, Professor Tandeciarz has partnered with scholars, activists, and practitioners here and abroad to offer students signature opportunities highlighting the privileges and responsibilities of global citizenship. Chief among these are the semester-long study abroad program in La Plata, Argentina focused on human rights that she helped to develop; and the National Security Archive Research Internship that she leads with Professor Betsy Konefal. Professor Tandeciarz holds a B.A. and M.A. in English from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Literature from Duke University.
 Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and President Macri of Argentina at Parque de La Memoria,” The White House, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 24 March 2016.
 David Ferriero’s comments, along with the entire set of presentations on April 12, can be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcIXnU2JPE0&t=1673s
 President Donald J. Trump to President Mauricio Macri, 11 April 2019, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/letter.jpg
 The tasker is included in a 51-page Department of Defense narrative report, pages 13 to 39: https://www.intel.gov/assets/documents/argentina/narratives/DoD%20Narrative%20for%20ADP%20April%202019_1.pdf.