Tuesday, March 3, 2009

HAC's Public Session Was Far From "J'Accuse"

On the rare occasions when I have to go to the State Department's headquarters building in Washington DC (my workplace is across the river in Rosslyn, Virginia: "Land of Government Annex Buildings"), I usually get lost trying to find the office I want. But yesterday I knew I was in the right place as soon as I walked in. It looked just like a faculty meeting, with most of the men wearing khakis and tweed sport coats. The shirts were mostly open-collared, and there was even one turtleneck. Sensible shoes were the norm. Backpacks outnumbered briefcases by about 5-to-1. Hardly anyone was wearing the blue suit / red tie uniform that you normally see in that building.

I can't tell whether or not the Historian's Office has become, professionally speaking, an intolerable place to work, but at least it looked like a comfortable place to work.

I didn't really expect drama at yesterday's public session of the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC), and there wasn't any. There were no resignations in protest, no mass walk out, no fist-fights, not even any harsh language. If there will be any confrontation of Dr. Marc Susser over the accusations brought against him of mismanaging the Historian's Office, I assume it will be done in private and more likely by Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy than by the HAC itself.

The public session took place with nothing said about the elephant in the room. On the agenda was a review of HO's plans for future production of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS, pronounced "Froose") volumes, and a report on the Department's progress on the review and declassification of historical documents. The closest anyone came to touching on a sore point was when a few members persistently questioned the wisdom of the Historian's announced intention to produce only about 38 volumes on the Reagan years, which would be fewer volumes than were produced for comparable eight-year periods. There seemed to be a consensus that 38 or so volumes would not be enough to properly document foreign relations during the Reagan years.

There was also a discussion about the pros and cons of publishing electronic FRUS volumes versus the traditional hard volumes. It seems the limited research that HO has done into its market, i.e., the users of the FRUS (usually scholars and graduate students, often ones located outside the U.S.), indicates that e-volumes would suit them just fine. The same amount of labor is needed to produce either kind of publication, however, the e-volumes are cheaper and have a shorter time to publication, so they seem like the better way to go.

Dr. Susser said little during the session, but I believe I heard him mention that the HAC has now sent its most recent annual report to Congress. That's interesting, assuming I heard correctly, since a heavily annotated draft of that report figures prominently in the storm of accusations and counter-accusations that has been raging since the resignations of the former HAC Chairman, William Roger Lewis, and the principal drafter of that report, committee member Thomas Schwartz. I wonder who approved the final report? And when will the Congress make it available?

Before I knew it the public session was over, we few visitors left the room, and a closed session began on the topic of declassification.

The next big development in the crisis within the HO will most likely be the report of the Inspector General investigation that is underway, and its probable recommendations regarding reconfiguring the Historian's Office.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for making it to the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) meeting.

Your experience reminds me of what HAC member Thomas Zeiler told Justin Vogt of the New Yorker wrote in "Tweed Wars" about HAC meetings: “Usually these meetings are fairly mundane. People fall asleep sometimes.” On some level, things seem to have returned to normal, but looks are deceiving.

As you surmised, most of the real action took place outside the meeting. Reportedly, members of the HAC met with Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy, members of the Office of Inspector General's inspection team (probably just for a briefing about what the OIG does), and with members of the special Review Committee for HO. This all happened outside the open session of the HAC meeting.

Still, the debate over FRUS volumes for the Reagan Administration is an important one. It gets to the important issue, raised by Douglas Selvage in his HNN posting -- namely, whether Susser is trying to reach the statutory 30-year mark by sacrificing the statutory requirement that the series be a "thorough and accurate" record of U.S. foreign policy.

In response to your question about the "heavily-annotated draft report," that was the HAC report for 2007, already submitted to Congress. The "heavily-annotated draft" was the version scribbled on - sorry, annotated -- by the management of the Historian's Office, which they submitted to the committee after the "purge" -- sorry, removal -- of its drafter, Thomas Schwartz, from the committee.

If the 2007 report was hard on HO, imagine what the new report for 2008, upon which the HAC is currently working, will look like. Office morale, office retention, and publication of FRUS volumes does not seem to have improved recently.

BTW, the meeting also approved the minutes from December, which report in a very formal (tweedy?) fashion the argument from December. They have been posted here. They suggest that nearly all -- if not all -- the members of the Advisory Committee, not just those who resigned, have serious problems with Susser's management of the office.

TSB said...


Thanks for the minutes of the December meeting. It sounds much livelier than Monday's.

Incidentally, I can confirm that members of the HAC did indeed meet with Patrick Kennedy on Monday; in fact, the open session started late because their meeting with him ran long.

Anger_Management said...

A new article by John Maggs at the National Journal (subscription required) asserts: "An unusual revolt by State Department employees is expected to trigger the ouster of the bureaucrat heading the Office of the Historian, a unique squad of 35 academics charged by statute with impartially chronicling America's foreign relations.

State Department Historian Marc Susser and his aide Douglas Kraft will be removed and offered other civil service positions, based on a recommendation by State's inspector general's office that will be finalized and published in the next two weeks, according to current and former employees of the office.

Although senior officials have not yet endorsed the recommendation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Wood last week began briefing staff historians on the decision, out of concern that several of them might soon quit or be forced out by Susser and Kraft. Susser's office said on Wednesday that he was on leave "for the next couple of days."

Seems like the die has been cast. It will be interesting to see the official announcement and -- as Maggs points out -- the extent to which the decision might have implications for other offices at the State Department, especially for those responsible for overseeing Susser's work.