Jason Vest,  March 10, 2015

On Clinton’s Emails and Kissinger’s Vault

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It’s been almost a decade since the last Clinton-related archival scandal; here we go again. First, the New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, used a non-official email to conduct government business. Soon after, the AP reported that she was routing her emails through the electronic equivalent of a basement still at the Clinton family home in Chappaqua, New York. Setting aside issues of computer security and the arguable half-life of any Clinton-related media-drivenCongressionally-obsessed investigation, perhaps the most troubling dimension to Clinton’s home computer hardware is the fact that it theoretically allows her to refuse government and legal requests for her emails, and simply disadvantage history.

This news took me back to 1998, when—while parsing the challenges that lay ahead for the prosecution of the murderous old despot Augusto Pinochet—I was reminded of the unique records retention practices pioneered by a murderous old former Secretary of State.[*] During his years of government service, Henry Kissinger taped all of his office phone calls; and, on government time, using government typewriters and government paper, his government secretaries transcribed them.

There were no private email servers back then, of course, and neither did Kissinger have a million-dollar house in Chappaqua. He did, however, have a powerful friend with a rural estate not far from Chappaqua. And, even more conveniently, that estate had a private vault.

In early 1976, it emerged that Kissinger had been shipping his NSC telephone conversation transcripts—the “telcons,” as they would later be known—to Kykuit, the Pocantico Hills, New York, family estate of his old retainer Nelson Rockefeller, installed as Gerald Ford’s vice president in 1974. It was, ironically, inquiries from Nixon-speechwriter-turned-New York Times-columnist William Safire that first prompted the telcon revelations, and led Safire to a hilariously terse interview with Rockefeller. That Rockefeller was also chairing the President’s Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States aided a layer of priceless poignancy to the interview:

How does Nelson Rockefeller feel about his complicity in all this? “Henry’s a friend,” the vice president told me. “I told him he could have use of the vault.” When? “I don’t remember when.” Did he just volunteer his vault, or did Henry ask? “I don’t remember.” Were six filing cabinets filled with secret records stored there? “There’s been a small volume of records stored there.” […] Did he realize his personal vault was being used improperly to store official secrets? “Henry’s a friend. I think he said something about papers from Harvard. I don’t know anything about classified documents.” Could I see the man who runs his Pocantico vault, to see what was checked in and out, and who was permitted access to the documents? “No, you can’t; that’s private.”

It would later come out that Kissinger had been stashing official documents in the Rockefeller vault for years, including a whopping thirty-crate consignment in 1973. Kissinger brought them back to State Department headquarters later that same year, after he was informed that placing government documents in a non-government facility was, in fact, illegal.

With characteristically shrewd, shameless panache, Kissinger eventually figured out a way to keep the public and historians from seeing the telcons. First, he eschewed asking State’s archival and historical officers for any guidance on the records, instead getting State’s chief legal advisor to declare that they were “personal,” and therefore not subject to the rule that all official documents eventually go the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) after years of individual agency review.

Then, on October 26, 1976, Kissinger once again sent the files north to the Rockefeller vault, while he arranged for the “donation” of his “personal” files to the Library of Congress—an element of the legislative branch, and therefore not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. He also placed a giant caveat on his donation—the edict that no one be allowed access to his files until five years after his death, or only with his express permission. (A convenient practice, investigative reporter Steve Weinberg noted in 1992, for those who write self-serving multivolume memoirs using classified material before anyone else gets to see it [PDF].)

It wasn’t until well into the second Clinton Administration, in 1998, that Madeline Albright gently tendered a request to the K for access to just his State telcons. Kissinger collegially budged, but only slightly: State’s historians could look at his transcripts, he allowed, but could not make copies, or even take notes. Also in 1998, George Washington University’s National Security Archive (a non-governmental non-profit, not to be confused with the government’s NARA) took up the telcon standard again. In a series of lawyerly exchanges with NARA and the Clinton and Bush State Departments between 1999 and 2001, the Archive said it was ready to litigate to force the government to go after Kissinger.

In 2001, Kissinger seemingly surrendered, paving the way for the eventual declassification and release, between 2004 and 2008, of a staggering 15,502 Kissinger telcons that have revealed new information about everything from Chile to critical US-Soviet back-channel diplomatic discussions to “bomb[ing] the be-jesus out of North Vietnam.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find an historian who doesn’t think the telcon declassifications were too long in coming.

Which brings us back to Clinton’s email protocols. Both history and bureaucratic reality should give one pause at Clinton’s tweet on the night of March 4, that “I want the public to see my email, I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.” Unfortunately, the necessary review process doesn’t mean that all of Clinton’s emails will be released soon, or in their entirety

For historical perspective, just ask the National Security Archive. On the same day as Clinton’s tweet, the Archive sued the State Department, challenging the agency’s refusal to release another batch of 700 Kissinger telcons, which State holds are exempted under FOIA exemption (b)(5) as “privileged presidential communications,” as they’re transcripts between Kissinger and Ford. 

I happened to call Bill Burr, the Archive’s resident telcon scholar, just as the lawyers were filing the case in U.S. District Court. The irony of this suit being filed just as the Clinton email story was unfolding wasn’t lost on him. “There’s a parallel here, in that Clinton had personal control over what well may be official records,” he said. “These are public records, right? Historical records of major decisions in government that help to create the world we’re living in. There’s no question Kissinger would have preferred his stuff stay under lock and key.”

Et tu, HRC? 

[*] Kissinger was recorded for the ages in these priceless photos, originally taken and published in Brazil, and later published in the U.S. through the efforts of former Intercept investigative reporter Ken Silverstein, then co-editor of CounterPunch, and co-author, with the late Alexander Cockburn, of the tragically rare Washington Babylon.

Jason Vest is a writer and journalist.

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