The Archives and Allen Weinstein

By Jon Wiener

This article appeared in the May 17, 2004 edition of The Nation.

April 29, 2004

The White House nomination of Allen Weinstein, a historian of Soviet espionage, as archivist of the United States has caused a storm of protest in the normally quiet world of archivists and historians. Nineteen organizations, including the Society of American Archivists and the Organization of American Historians, have issued a joint statement expressing concern and calling on the Senate, which must confirm the nomination, to hold hearings to find out why the current archivist is being replaced and whether Weinstein is qualified. That call was heeded; hearings will be held "in the coming weeks," according to a Senate spokesperson.

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The groups' first concern is that the nomination appears to be a political move, while the position of archivist was supposed to have been depoliticized. Weinstein has close ties to Republicans in Congress, and the board of his Center for Democracy includes Henry Kissinger. The archivist should be a non-political appointment because, as the custodian of the nation's history, the person is confronted with issues that have major political consequences--from the JFK assassination records to the Nixon White House tapes. Decisions about access ought to be nonpartisan; that's why the archivist's term is not linked to the President's. It is indefinite, and the archivist can be fired by the President only for cause. There was no need to replace the present archivist, John Carlin, a Clinton appointee; Carlin had made it clear that he intended to remain at his post until July 2005. He did announce on April 8 that he would leave before that--reportedly in response to White House pressure--but declared in his statement that he is not resigning until his successor is sworn in.

Why, then, has the White House nominated a new archivist? Many speculate that George W. Bush, as well as his father, thinks the younger Bush may lose the election, and they want their man in control of their archives before that happens. The new archivist will deal with access to the papers of the 9/11 Commission after it closes up shop in August and with the release of the archives of the presidency of Bush Senior, which, under the Presidential Records Act, can be made public starting in 2005 (except, of course, for classified documents). These records include, for example, documents on Bush Senior's role in the Iran/contra scandal of the late 1980s, when he was Reagan's Vice President. And if Bush Junior does lose the election, the new archivist would have a third new task: appointing a director for the Bush Junior presidential archives.

Whatever Bush's motives may be, Weinstein, who declined a request for an interview, is considered by many archivists and historians to be unqualified on ethical grounds. They point to his buying exclusive access to restricted archives and his withholding of archival materials from other scholars, which appear to violate the ethical standards of the archivists' and historians' organizations. The Senate should consider these issues in confirmation hearings.

For Weinstein's 1998 book The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era, his publisher, Random House, in 1993 paid a group of retired KGB agents a substantial amount of money--Weinstein has told people $100,000--in exchange for "exclusive" access to the KGB archives (see Ellen Schrecker, "The Spies Who Loved Us?" May 24, 1999). This appears to violate the code of ethics of the International Council on Archives, which calls for "the widest possible access" to documents.

In contrast, when Yale University Press obtained access to the Moscow archives of the Communist Party, editors pledged to make their documents available to other researchers. Jonathan Brent, now editorial director of the Annals of Communism series at Yale, explained to the New York Times that Yale made that pledge because "we want to enhance scholarship, not impede it." Commercial publishers of course want exclusive access in order to make a profit, but the US archivist should be held to a higher standard. Joyce Appleby, past president of the American Historical Association and emeritus professor of history at UCLA, told me that "buying exclusive access raises serious ethical questions." Senate confirmation hearings should consider this issue a well.

Brent added that "KGB files are very problematic from the standpoint of authenticity and reliability," which makes it all the more important for other scholars to see the materials Weinstein used in his research. But the Russian government withdrew access to the KGB archives for Weinstein's co-author, Alexander Vassiliev, and everyone else. Amy Knight, a scholar of Soviet history, wrote in The Wilson Quarterly that the consequences of this problem were that "many of the standards by which scholars traditionally judge historical writings have been lowered, or discarded altogether," in works like The Haunted Wood.

Similar objections to the Weinstein book were raised by Anna Nelson of American University, who has extensive experience in governmental archives policy. She was partly responsible for the drafting of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, and she was a member of the John F. Kennedy Records Review Board, which won the release of tens of thousands of pages of assassination-related documents. Writing about The Haunted Wood in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nelson described the "special access" given to Weinstein and co-author Vassiliev, as "problematical." "Many questions could be answered if other scholars could examine the same records," she wrote. "But Russian officials have now closed the KGB files to researchers, and we have no way to confirm the contents of this book." The result is that scholars are unable to make a judgment about Weinstein's work. I asked Nelson what she thought about the nomination of Weinstein to be archivist. "I don't think he's qualified," she said.

About Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener started writing for The Nation in 1984. Since then he's written more than 100 stories and reviews for the magazine, many about American history, university politics, and California life. He's also professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a Los Angeles radio host. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower (New Press). more...


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