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Will Trump Bungle Obama’s Declassification Diplomacy?

Under Obama, the U.S. handed over scores of damning historical documents to allies. But such outreach requires a deft, sensitive hand.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

President Donald Trump was eager to take credit for last month’s declassification of the last JFK assassination records, even though their release had been planned in 1992. But he didn’t have anything to say about one of the biggest declassifications of the decade: Nearly 30,000 pages of records from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta between 1964 and 1968 were released in mid-October by the nonprofit National Security Archive. The records add new details to America’s involvement in the Indonesian military’s mass killing of up to one million suspected Communists in 1965 and 1966, which helped inaugurate a 32-year-long military dictatorship under Suharto. The U.S. materially supported the army’s campaign with money, radios, and “kill lists” of Communist Party members.

While the files were applauded by human rights activists and many Indonesians, their official reception ranged from silence to displeasure. Public discussions of the mass killings remain verboten in Indonesia—aging survivors of the anti-Communist purge couldn’t even hold a closed-door human rights seminar in September without incurring violent protests. Current Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made an abortive attempt to address human rights violations early in his term, but the political costs of the effort mounted and he quietly gave it up. Indonesia’s defense minister went public with his pique at the document dump, telling reporters in October that he wasn’t sure why the files were released at this time, and that they could not be believed at face value. He added that the perpetrators are “all old men now” and that he himself was “just a kid” during the killings.

Shortly after this, U.S.-Indonesia relations frayed further over a bizarre scandal in which the Indonesian military chief Gatot Nurmantyo was denied entry into the U.S. for a counterextremism conference. The specifics of the gaffe remain unclear, but it was singularly bad timing. “Many military officials I’ve spoken to honestly think the U.S. is trying to play a role in the next presidential elections, between the declassified files and the Gatot incident,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a defense lecturer at Gen. Achmad Yani University. “Of course this operates on the level of conspiracy, but the optics are in fact bad, from their perspective.”  

A degree of unpleasantness was perhaps inevitable given the content of the records. Declassified files are never going to be a point of pride for America, whose vast catalog of twentieth century interventionism ranges from manufactured coups to exploding cigars. But such diplomatic revelations aren’t necessarily destined to result in embarrassments and strained relations. In recent years, both Chile and Argentina have actually welcomed similar gestures, the key difference being active State Department participation. Meanwhile, State Department historians are preparing to declassify files from what Robert McMahon, who sits on the department’s Historical Advisory Committee, calls the “the most high-profile cases ever of Cold War intervention, from the 1980s Reagan Doctrine: Iran, Nicaragua, Afghanistan.”

The release of the Jakarta documents could have been handled better, said Arbi Sanit, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia: “It seems like there isn’t a lot of inter-agency coherence in the current White House.” The declassification was led by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit headquartered at George Washington University that made no secret of its efforts, which were enabled by the Freedom of Information Act. But the present-day U.S. embassy in Jakarta seemed to have been caught off-guard by their release, putting out no official statement. The transition between two different U.S. ambassadors to Indonesia in 2016 may have been the reason, according to an outside adviser who briefed the previous ambassador on the files.

The independent push on the embassy records was necessary because the State Department didn’t act to declassify more Indonesia files from the period, said Bradley Simpson, a University of Connecticut professor who oversaw the project. A spokesperson for the East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau at the State Department said, “We support [the National Archive]’s efforts to release historically valuable records that do not threaten our national security,” citing specifically the documents that would “shed light on the foreign relations of the United States with Indonesia during the mid-1960s.” But even Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, the body that formally requested the files last year, “had no official notice [of the date when] the files were coming, and found out only from the news media,” said Muhammad Nurkhoiron, one of the commission’s members.

In contrast to this tumult, just last year, then-Secretary of State John Kerry
hand-delivered a hard disk to Argentinian President Mauricio Macri containing newly declassified CIA records on Argentina’s “Dirty War” against leftists and dissidents in the 1970s, which the U.S. supported. In 2015, Kerry did the same for Chile’s president, delivering new records on a notorious 1976 assassination on American soil of opposition figure Orlando Letelier, which had been ordered by the U.S.-supported dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, yet another figure who led a brutal campaign against leftists and dissidents in his country. 

Kerry’s outreach was an Obama-era innovation to use declassification for statecraft, according to American diplomats. “The reaction in both Chile and Argentina was incredibly positive,” said Michael Camilleri, a diplomat who served in the State Department and National Security Council from 2012 to 2017. “Chile, for instance, is a place where the current government is full of leaders who were victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, so it really cut to the bone for officials there.” 

The warm reception was indicative of the evolution in America’s relationship with Chile and Argentina, where it supported a military junta’s violent coup and a military junta’s war of repression, respectively. The U.S.’s relationship with Indonesia has likewise changed, which suggests the latest dump of declassified documents was not destined to be a source of friction. At their core, the U.S. and Indonesia have a friendly relationship, so if further CIA records on 1960s-era Indonesia are ever cleared for release—as many have called for—it could be an opportunity to take another stab at declassification diplomacy.

“Secret history is a powerful tool of diplomacy,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and director of its Chile Documentation Project. It is particularly so at a time when American hegemony is ebbing, and as the U.S. attempts to reckon with past actions that may continue to hurt diplomatic relations in the present.  A lot, however, will depend on how Trump and his successors handle those efforts. 

The Obama administration placed a uniquely high value on historical accountability; Obama’s executive order in January 2009 on declassification, which created a dedicated National Declassification Center (NDC) within the National Archives, was very first of his presidency. His administration showed conclusively how declassification can be a tool for diplomacy.

Trump’s approach to declassification, in contrast, remains a wild card. His administration “doesn’t seem particularly concerned with past international human rights abuses,” said Simpson. Meanwhile, thanks to Secretary of State Rex Tilleron’s “corporate downsizing,” the State Department is running on a skeleton crew. That means there’s dramatically less potential for idiosyncratic projects from specialized personnel like Camilleri and Kornbluh. 

For now, the Trump administration is abiding by Obama’s precedent. “The Argentina declassification project is still going on and the Trump administration did go ahead and deliver next tranche of documents to Argentina’s president this year, which is a really positive sign,” said Camilleri. “I was,” he admitted, “a bit surprised.” The State Department also quietly declassified another cache of files on Iran last June, less than two months after a recommendation to do so from the Historical Advisory Committee. 

And on the receivers’ end, declassified diplomacy requires a foreign government that is willing to discuss a restive period in its history with a world power that aggravated it. For instance, the Chile project started, according to Camilleri, during a state visit in 2014, when Chile’s ambassador to the U.S. broached the possibility of declassifying the Letelier files. That conversation led to the hard disk in Kerry’s hand one year later. Today the files are displayed at an exhibit at Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights. 

Even reticent Indonesia could become a cooperative partner, because bilateral dynamics can change quite fast: The Argentina effort was considered impossible just two years ago because “the old government was distinctly unhelpful,” said Camilleri. The stars only aligned under Macri. If President Jokowi wins reelection in 2019 (thus relieving some political pressure against discussing the mass killings), he could be, as someone with a known interest in historical reconciliation, a potentially excellent partner in declassification diplomacy. 

“They’re sprawling, complicated cases,” said McMahon. “But we’re in a much better place for declassification than we were just ten years ago. The fact is, the U.S. has gone much further than any other world power in surfacing covert actions from its past.” 

The question is whether the State Department will consider this to be an asset or a liability. The coming revelations on Reagan-era interventions seem, on the surface, almost impossible to come to terms with gracefully. But very recent history shows that, even when dealing with devastating historical revelations, the U.S. still has a wide berth to earn diplomatic points. How declassified disclosures are shared may be just as important as what they contain.