Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Revenge of the Nerds

It's a good time to talk about the political importance of having well-staffed and well-stocked archives from government and other nonprofit sectors at a time when for-profit corporations with proprietary software are being entrusted with the nation's information infrastructure. This week, as the American Library Association holds its annual conference, Siva Vaidhyanathan is cautioning against uncritically celebrating Amazon.com's expansion into the digital library business, as it follows Yahoo and Google into what they hope will be a lucrative sector of the information economy.

Three recent case studies illustrate the role that archives can have for government policy and the public sphere: the National Archives, the independent National Security Archive, and the archives at the National War College.

Today, the National Security Archive is announcing the release of what it calls "The CIA Family Jewels" or the most embarrassing gaffes and illegal exploits in the history of the highly secretive agency after fifteen years of document requests.

Those following the news are also learning more about the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, as it battles with Vice President Dick Cheney who after years of claiming Executive privilege now insists that he is not part of the Executive Branch in order to avoid complying with archiving procedures and security protocols that are the norm for other government agencies.

Finally, Conrad Crane, a military historian, was probably best known for being the head of the archives at the National War College until he co-authored the now-famous monograph Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario. Crane's book predicted many of the preventable disasters that were to happen in Iraq from looted museums to sectarian death squads. NPR has done a series of stories about Crane's work including this wonderful program on "The Center for Lessons Learned" from This American Life. (I like how the show also tells how information-savvy colonels were forced to be copyright violators by asking that pages in books in the Columbia library about the British colonial experience in Iraq at the turn of the last century be scanned and e-mailed to officers in the military theater.)

Update: According to a front-page article in The Washington Post, "CIA Releases Files on Past Misdeeds," it is the members of the CIA themselves who call the information released by the National Security Archives "The Family Jewels." According to the Post, this collection of "assassination plans, illegal wiretaps and hunts for spies at political conventions" was segregated from other documents during the Watergate era for its "flap potential" should the "delicate" information be exposed. Also included in the pages of CIA hijinks: some unauthorized testing of human subjects with drugs that had strange effects on mice.

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