Madam Secretary

Disarray in historian’s office at Foggy Bottom

Disarray in historian’s office at Foggy Bottom

Secretary Clinton has inherited many headaches from her predecessor (and her predecessor’s boss), but while most of them concern foreign shores, at least one is far closer to home. According to a number of recent reports, the Office of the Historian at the State Department is in serious disarray.

Now, before you even ask whether this bears any relevance whatsoever to the workings of the State Department or to Sec. Clinton, let’s be clear: It absolutely does. The Office of the Historian is in charge of publishing the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), a documentary series first started under Abraham Lincoln that features declassified government documents – from State, Defense, NSC, CIA, and other government agencies – relating to how U.S. foreign policy is made. It’s the first stop for researchers, journalists, historians, and ordinary citizens wanting to know the secrets to how the sausage is made. Want to see the minutes from Oval Office meetings on the Iraq war circa March 2003? Check the FRUS in a few decades’ time.

And from the recent reports (and through no fault of her own, commenters), it sounds as though Sec. Clinton has inherited something of a hornet’s nest. In December, the chairman of the watchdog committee overseeing the series resigned in protest, citing mismanagment of the FRUS. William Roger Lewis, a former president of the American Historical Association, said in his resignation letter to Condoleezza Rice:

The Historian’s Office has become an intolerable place to work; the exodus of experienced historians is significant; and the future of the Foreign Relations series is at risk. […] At the present rate of attrition, the Foreign Relations series faces as grave a crisis as at any time in its history.

The reported disorder in the Historian’s office is causing the publication of declassified materials to fall behind schedule by several years. How is this any of Clinton’s problem? It’s up to the Secretary to make sure the series is published on time. Secretary Rice met with members of the Advisory Committee just before she left State, and an outside report was prepared in an attempt to solve the office’s issues. It was released just days before Obama took office, and there’s worry that its critical recommendations might have gotten lost in the shuffle of the new administration. It need not necessarily be at the top of her to-do list, but support from Secretary Clinton early on in her tenure could get this critical resource back on track. 

Thanks to reader BB for the tip.