Giving Americans back their history may not rank with ending the war in Iraq or balancing the budget, but it should be high on the to-do list of the next president. Our declassification system has broken down. Historians are waiting an average of seven years for replies from presidential libraries to their Freedom of Information Act requests. The White House cannot locate millions of e-mail records created during the months immediately before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The problem goes far beyond the Bush administration or its immediate predecessors. Tens of thousands of pages of previously declassified top-secret documents that I read and photographed two years ago at the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard, while researching a minute-by-minute narrative of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were closed to researchers in March pending an indefinite security "review." The ostensible reason for pulling the records is the 1999 Kyl-Lott amendment that requires the rescreening of millions of documents for supposedly sensitive nuclear secrets. But it is difficult to explain why the Navy waited nearly a decade before acting.