Q&A with Tom Blanton, Director, National Security Archive
What do you think are some of most significant government transparency and accountability issues of our time?
The ongoing transparency deficit is a big one that the beginning of the Trump administration and his refusal to release his tax returns hinted at. Trump refusing to place his assets into a trust signaled a dynamic that continues on the regulatory front. Whether it’s wholesale evisceration of protections at the Environmental Protection Agency, security classification, stonewalling FOIA requests, the message from the top is that if you want to obstruct the public’s access to information you have the go-ahead.
What are your thoughts on the Afghanistan papers and what do you think the overall impact will be?
The series is a terrific tribute to FOIA. Few newsrooms can put a senior reporter like Craig Whitlock on a story for three years and give him the time and backing to do the work. Each installment focused on a different aspect of the war. A) The spin: The Pentagon said they were making progress, but it was a lie that continued over 18 years under three administrations and with huge human costs. B) The corruption angle: The stories gave us better insight into the $133 billion our government spent on a failed war and helps us understand why Afghanistan is so corrupt C) Perspective on the Opium economy in Afghanistan: which tripled after U.S. involvement. I thought it was interesting that the people we were fighting (the Taliban) helped get it down in the first place. It was the best piece of journalism of 2019 and people will refer back to it for years to come.
What other issue areas would you like to see such journalistic depth of coverage in 2020?
Two areas: nuclear weapons and climate change. These are important areas where the government’s actions could lead to our extinction as a species and in which the secrecy disease is rampant. In these areas, secrecy restricts the debate to a select few and that’s a toxic combination because secrecy surrounding the modernization of our nuclear capability, for example, essentially provokes other countries to behave the same way. We need to take action to slow down the nuclear race and our reliance on fossil fuels. The Archive is putting a lot of energy into these areas and I am focused on reopening the diplomacy that has made us safer and more effective as a country in the past.
What’s the most beneficial part of been part of OTG as a coalition partner and a member of its Steering Committee?
OTG is genius at convening groups that ordinarily wouldn’t see and interact with each other. The process of getting people to have that broader discussion beyond their respective silos is critical. For the Archive, it has led to interesting partnerships. For example, the Archive partnered with coalition partner Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to sue the State Department for bypassing official record-keeping procedures in connection to the impeachment inquiry. OTG’s ability to build consensus around reform positions enables these larger joint actions to happen.
What are the accomplishments you and the Archive team are most proud of in 2019?
Showing that FOIA works despite delays, backlogs and other hassle factors like going to court every now and then is one. We also couldn’t have asked for better than the Washington Post stories [The Afghanistan Papers] holding the government accountable for the war and including the Rumsfeld snowflakes which the Archive secured in their coverage. We are in court for a series of cases related to Ukraine to try to make the White House keep records. We may not win but a key goal is to show where the holes are so that a future government who wants to keep the executive branch accountable can fix these loopholes.
Any quote(s) that inspire your work you would like to share with us?
“There is nothing like having a good repository and keeping a good look out, not waiting at home for things to fall into the lap, but prowling about like a wolf for the prey.”
— Jeremy Belknap, principal founder and first corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society