WASHINGTON – Forget Presidents Trump and Biden. The biggest collector of top-secret White House documents was most likely Henry Kissinger – and he’s managed to take some of those classified secrets with him to his grave, experts say.
Hours after his death at age 100, the non-profit and non-partisan National Security Archive released a “declassified obituary” that shows “the long paper trail of secret documents” recording Kissinger’s policy deliberations, conversations, and directives on many initiatives for which he became famous. Among them: Détente with the Soviet Union, the U.S. opening to China and Middle East shuttle diplomacy.
That long secret paper trail, made public by the Archive after a hard-fought battle with Kissinger, also shows the hidden side of his eight-year tenure as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the tumultuous 1970s.
That includes Kissinger’s role in the secret overthrow of democracies in Latin America, secret bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia and secret wiretaps of his own aides, according to scores of documents cited by the Archive, which is housed at The George Washington University in the nation’s capital.
But it is the sheer volume of information that Kissinger took with him when leaving office that is perhaps most noteworthy in the present context. Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump − and Trump's former Vice President Mike Pence − have endured Justice Department investigations for taking classified materials from the White House when they left.
Biden and Pence say they never took any intentionally and that they’ve returned everything that is supposed to be secured and eventually declassified by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, where appropriate, for public dissemination.
Trump, on the other hand, has been less cooperative and is being prosecuted for what the Justice Department says are extremely serious violations of the Espionage Act -- including the illegal retention of defense information and obstructing the government's efforts to retrieve them. He has pleaded not guilty and insists he had the presidential right to take them to his Mar-a-Lago estate with him upon leaving office.
“In all of those cases it looks like they took a relative handful of items,” especially Biden and Pence, whose confidential documents appeared to have been mixed with other personal papers, said Tom Blanton, the Archive’s director since 1992 who helped lead the fight to make Kissinger’s records public.
A "most shocking" amount of documents
”In Kissinger's case, it was the scale that was most shocking,” Blanton said. “He moved out his entire office files.”
That included 30,000 pages of “telcons,” or transcripts of Kissinger’s top-secret – and self-recorded – telephone conversations with his two commanders-in-chief, foreign leaders and top White House aides on the most sensitive political issues of the day, Blanton said.
Kissinger also took with him another 90,000 or so pages of top-secret transcripts made from his meetings with other White House officials and foreign leaders, according to the documents posted by the National Security Archive.
Like the telcons, these were transcribed by secretaries at the White House and State Department, who were instructed to then throw the original cassettes away, Blanton said.
But that wasn’t all that Kissinger took with him.
Daily memos to Nixon and Ford
“When you add in the daily memos Kissinger wrote to Presidents Nixon and Ford, you add in the daily briefs that he had his National Security Council staff draft and that he also got from CIA, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of pages” of documents,” Blanton said.
Back in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for White House officials to take home at least some documents as their personal papers, especially if they were copies of documents created by support staff like the National Security Council in the daily operation of government.
What made Kissinger so different, Blanton said, was that much of the material he took was off the books and not even known to support staff and even senior officials, especially the secret telcon and memcon transcriptions.
As a result, Blanton said, “Kissinger uniquely held this one complete, massive collection of the core, top-secret documents of his eight years in power, first at the White House, then as Secretary of State, and he hauled them away for his own unique advantage.”
Kissinger used the documents to write a series of best-selling memoirs, complete with often-lengthy verbatim quotations.
Unprecedented, even if not explicitly illegal
One former top information security official at the White House and National Archives agreed that what Kissinger did was unprecedented, even if it was not explicitly illegal like what Trump has been charged with doing.
“I think the volume of the Kissinger holdings far outstrips any of the contemporary and current cases that we've been examining,” said the former official, who was personally involved in handling some of the Kissinger documents and spoke on the condition of anonymity given his current job in the private sector. “Even in consideration of the past practices of decades ago, it has to be considered among the largest possible just because the numbers are so great in terms of the memcom and telcon counts that the National Security Archive has put on the record.”
Kissinger took his documents at a time when there was less focus on the need to preserve them for the public record, and before the post-Watergate establishment of the Presidential Records Act made it illegal to do so, said that former official.
But because Kissinger moved the trove of documents to his Secretary of State office before leaving government on Jan. 20, 1977, after Ford’s election loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter, he was obligated to follow other laws governing document retention by federal officials, according to that official and Blanton.
Kissinger justified taking the documents by saying that all of them were his personal papers, and that a lawyer at the State Department approved his taking them. Blanton said the State legal advisor didn't review the documents and therefore didn't understand their importance as part of the official record of the administration.
J. Stapleton Roy, founding director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States told USA TODAY on Thursday that Kissinger handled his government papers consistent with the policies and guidelines of the time.
“My assumption was that if he had government papers that they would have been handled in the manner consistent with how Secretaries of State papers are handled, and those of National Security Advisors.”
Roy, a former U.S. ambassador to China, said Kissinger may have considered some of his papers, especially about the end of the Nixon administration during Watergate, to be protected by executive privilege. But he said he never saw Kissinger try to do anything to improperly protect his official papers from being made public where appropriate.
A push for access
After first moving his papers to former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., Kissinger gave them to the Library of Congress, but with the stipulation that they couldn’t be made public until five years after his death, Blanton said.
Because the Library of Congress is technically part of Congress, it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, which meant the public – and research organizations like the National Security Archive – would never get to see them and gain a full understanding of Kissinger's time in office, Blanton said.
In response, the Archive and other transparency groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press spent years fighting to gain access to the documents.
Their main argument was that the State Department and National Archives had inappropriately allowed classified U.S. government documentation to be removed from their official control.
A State Department lawyer agreed, and persuaded Kissinger to hand over the documents by saying the government would lose in court if he didn’t. In 2002, Kissinger directed the Library of Congress to begin making copies of the documents, and within months, tranches of them began to make their way to the National Archive.
Blanton’s group began publishing reports on them, including the telcons and memcons, detailing aspects of Kissinger’s tenure that had not been known to the public before. Some caused a firestorm of controversy, including Kissinger's role as the chief architect of U.S. efforts to destabilize the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and install an autocratic dictator.
But even today, Blanton said, the declassified Kissinger documents are still trickling in, "and we may never get to see all of them."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Henry Kissinger's 'declassified obituary' tells the real story