Last week, the CIA declassified and released a large chunk of 1970s-era documents gathered as part of an internal review designed to assess and prepare for possible public embarrassments in the midst of the Watergate investigation. In response to an order from then-chief James R. Schlesinger, as the Washington Post wrote last week, "the agency combed its files for what it called delicate information with flap potential. The result was a collection of documents [at least some CIA analysts] called the family jewels" (read the Post story in full here).

I hesitate to call this huge event an under-reported story (the news was everywhere last week; below you will find extensive treatment from the NYT). On the other hand, for historians this is a coup of great significance. Some of these "Freedom of Information" requests went back three decades. More than that, cataloguing newly released documents is the essence of "doing history." As the old guys say: "no document; no history." This is the exhilarating part of the business. In a word: poring over newly released primary sources is fun.

You would think that the news media would feel the same way. But I sense an awkwardness in regard to reporting this story. Although it is hard for me to put my finger on exactly, the coverage is less than fully engaged or even highly interested. In other words, the reporting lacks the joy you might expect in uncovering this treasure trove.

Why the lack of enthusiasm? Some speculation in brief:

1. The story goes against the template that the Bush administration is the most secretive White House ever. It is hard to reconcile this essential core assumption with the unprecedented access to secrets that four previous administrations (two of which were Democratic) denied.

2. The documents themselves also play against the template that all dirty tricks began with Richard Nixon. This assumption is perhaps even more sacred (although eminently less defensible) than the first.


--Although a gunman assassinated Martin Luther King the spring before Richard Nixon won election as president, we see in our mind's eye the Nixon White House harassing and surveilling the civil rights icon.

--John Kerry famously remembered spending Christmas Eve 1968 on a gunboat in Cambodia while the President of the United States [presumably Nixon] was telling people we were not in Cambodia. Again, Nixon did not take office until the next month.

Lies and deception are Nixonian and Republican. We do not enjoy hearing reports that Bobby Kennedy oversaw the project to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Having said all that, here are some nuts and bolts on where to start in terms of engaging this new information:

The New York Times offered an interesting series of commentary and expert analysis on their NYT blog, which you can access here (membership required).

The Actual Repository: The agency actually released the documents to the "National Security Archive," a self-described "independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University." You may access the archive here.