Sunday, September 27, 2009

Weekend With Shades - Sunday - September 27

A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column

Uncle Sam's Secrets

Dan and his grandfather shared a love of history genealogy and old photographs. Dan enjoyed his grandfather stories of the war and the postwar era. Dan had started a blog and a web site about the war years. There were, however, times when Grandpa would say, "Oh, I can't talk about that yet. But one of these days..." Dan assumed that the subject matter was just too emotionally painful for his grandfather to talk about. Unfortunately Grandpa passed away before "one of these days" came along. Dan was left without a complete understanding of what his grandfather had done during that period of time.

About a year after his grandfather died, Dan received a large package from his grandmother. It contained hundreds of photographs that Dan had never seen before. Among them were some of the ones displayed below. On the backs of some of the photographs were legends such as: "Not for Publication," or "Restricted Information," or "For Official Use Only" or most ominously,
"Release Restricted By Code of Wartime Practices." Others were simply marked "Secret" or "Top Secret." Many of them had a logo on them that look like this:

Lapel Pin worn by Office of Censorship personnel in the 1940s

Left: A nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s. The people on the right are military personnel, part of the Government's Human Radiation Exposure project. This photograph was at one time classified. (Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Dept of Energy).

Maj Gen Leslie R. Groves and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer confer about the Manhattan Project. This photograph was once restricted from publication. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.

Dan did not know what to make of the photographs. Could he use them in his blog? Could he even lawfully possessed them? What on earth did it mean "Classified by the Office of Censorship"? After all this is America; we wouldn't have an office of censorship! And if we ever had, certainly it couldn't still be in control of things now.

Two Soviet Agents meeting with a U.S. Atomic Scientist are caught on U.S. security surveillance cameras in the 1940s. From left to right: Soviet agent Gregory Kasparov, UC Berkeley scientist Martin Kamen, and Gregory Kheifits, then the Soviet NKGB station head in San Francisco. Formerly classified photograph, courtesy National Security Agency

Not exactly sure what to do, Dan turned to his favorite photography blog, Shades of the Departed, and searched the Appealing Subjects articles. He found this one.

World War II Censorship and Cold War Government Secrecy

On December 18, 1941, by Executive Order 8785, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of Censorship. In creating the office, Roosevelt said, "All Americans abhor censorship, just as they abhor war. But the experience of this and of all other Nations has demonstrated that some degree of censorship is essential in wartime, and we are at war."

The Office of Censorship had powers unprecedented in American history. The Executive Order said:

The Director of Censorship shall cause to be censored, in his absolute discretion, communications by mail, cable, radio, or other means of transmission passing between the United States and any foreign country or which may be carried by any vessel or other means of transportation touching at any port, place, or Territory of the United States and bound to or from any foreign country . . . .
This broad grant of authority included the ability to restrict publication of photographs.

The executive news editor of the Associated Press, Byron Price, was appointed the first and only Director of Censorship. Price's biggest task during the war was to secret information about development of the atomic bomb. Ironically, because of the tight security surrounding the Manhattan Project, Price himself did not learn of the US efforts to build a nuclear weapon for more than a year after he took over the Office of Censorship.

Price's office developed the so-called "Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press and Radio," which, although couched in terms seemingly voluntary, made clear that certain things were not to be published.

In September 1942, the Office of War Information promulgated a regulation on the management of classified and restricted information. This regulation would later be the basis for an Executive Order issued by President Truman in 1950, which introduced the modern era of government secrecy.

Above, right: Telephone Operators at Camp Mercury, Nevada, location of the then secret Nevada Test Site, early 1950s. Photograph was formerly classified. Courtesy, National Nuclear Security Administration, US Dept of Energy

During the Eisenhower administration, the government began to set up mechanisms to review and declassify restricted information. Those mechanism have changed over time, but have resulted in declassification of millions of documents of historical value. But it has been a slow and difficult process. So, believe it or not, there is some amount of classified information from World War II that remains classified today.

But, back to Dan and his problem.

How would Dan know if some of the photographs left by his grandfather are restricted from publication? Note that some formerly classified photos look fairly innocent. Dan first would need to learn something about the photos. Specifically, he might want to ask:

  1. Where were the photographs taken?
  2. What is depicted in the photographs?
  3. What other markings are on the backs or captions of the photographs?
  4. How did his grandfather come to possess them?
  5. What did his grandfather do during the war? (that may explain the previous questions).
  6. Which branch of service was he in?

To learn some of these things, Dan may have to consult an expert photo-historian or a national security expert or both. In these areas, Maureen Taylor and John Pike are two of the "rock stars," respectively.

The National Archives Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) is now responsible for managing the Government-wide security classification system. That office and other elements of the Archives may be of some assistance as well.

Above, right: a location at the then-secret Los Alamos laboratory, 1940s. Photograph formerly restricted from publication. Courtesy, US Dept of Energy.

What are the practical implications for family historians? The chances are fairly small that one might encounter a classified photograph that is still security restricted from World War II. But such photographs might be found for more recent eras. Since the Truman Executive Order of 1950, classified or restricted documents are marked with their security classification. The terms used since the 1950s are: Restricted, Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. One may encounter documents or photographs labelled "Controlled", "For Official Use Only," "NOFORN" ("no foreign dissemination"--cannot be disclosed to foreign governments or nationals). The label "Law Enforcement Sensitive" might also be used. Over the last few years, ISOO has tried to "clean up" and streamline the classification process and eliminate many terms that had come into usage in the Government.

If you come across a photograph or document that has a security classification labeling, it would seem to me that not publishing it until its status is resolved is the prudent course. And I would seek to resolve the matter right away. The Federal Bureau of Investigation may be the most convenient place to go with such photographs, although the Archives also would be a place to go.

Again, I think the chances of classified photographs being interspersed with family photos is rather slim.

By the way, the declassification programs of recent years have netted treasure troves of history for entire communities. One great example is the Hanford Declassification Project, which has restored the history of the community of Hanford, Washington.


Reminder: Appealing Subjects/Shades Contest: You still have until Oct 15 to tell us what happened to the killer of photographer A.J. Magill in East St Louis, Illinois in 1908. You could win a Shades T-Shirt designed by footnote Maven! See last month's Appealing Subjects.


Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I'm surprised Dan's grandfather would have any pictures or documents of this nature. I would have thought they would have had to stay on base. My mother worked on some secret project during WWII and she's still not talking and I doubt she ever will.

September 27, 2009 at 5:38 AM  
Blogger Thomas MacEntee said...

Great article Craig and while it doesn't answer all the questions I've had it does give structure to the problem and direction as to where to go to solve it. Earlier this week a fellow genealogist on Twitter had the same query so perhaps there are many family treasure troves with classified photos.

September 27, 2009 at 8:49 AM  
Blogger Craig Manson said...

Yes. Part of the issue, which perhaps we understated, is that some people are not as scrupulous or careful as they should be and will end up with restricted material either inadvertently or deliberately.

September 27, 2009 at 9:29 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home