Photo courtesy of Nate Jones

LC alum works to declassify secret government documents

Nate Jones ’05, the recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Young Alumnus Award, stumbled upon an enigma while writing his history thesis at Lewis & Clark. This led to a career fighting government secrecy, first at the National Security Archive (NSA) and now at The Washington Post. 

His thesis focused on the 1983 Able Archer nuclear scare, an annual NATO exercise that almost triggered a nuclear war. His aim was to show how dangerous this scare actually was, but he met a roadblock: the information he needed was in a classified government report.

Jones soon found himself immersed in the world of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a 1967 legislation that gives the public the right to request nonexempt records from any federal agency. Jones filed his first FOIA request while at LC, and while this request did not go anywhere at the time, it led him to a career where he files FOIA requests on a daily basis.

“So the irony is if they’d just given me the dang document the first time, I wouldn’t have helped file thousands more (FOIA requests),” Jones said.

After graduating, Jones kept digging for the Able Archer information and found the NSA (the National Security Archive), a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that fights for the public release of secret government documents. He worked his way up and soon became the FOIA director at the NSA, where about 2,000 FOIA requests are filed a year. But he never stopped fighting for the information he wanted about the Able Archer scare.

“About 10 years later, on my birthday, I got a big package of this key document and then eventually turned it into a book and finished off what started at the beginning at Lewis & Clark,” Jones said.

Jones’ book, entitled “Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War,” came out in 2016, and highlighted how worried policymakers at the time were about accidental nuclear war. Jones said that this event affected President Ronald Reagan’s thinking about nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

“Government people on the inside have said to me many times, ‘I can’t believe you actually got that declassified. We thought that they would be secret forever,’” Jones said. “There’s still a debate on how dangerous it was, but what’s not in debate was that policymakers knew this happened and many were worried about it.”

Although he is still a research fellow at the NSA, Jones recently transitioned to The Washington Post, where he is the first FOIA director. The Post is trying to bring more rigor into its FOIA requests, so Jones is working with reporters to target documents to request, appeal and sue for. He is also helping them overcome bureaucratic resistance such as delays and over redactions. 

Even though there is a 20-day deadline for agencies to respond to FOIA requests, they rarely meet this deadline — the oldest FOIA request, still not met, is over 20 years old. According to Jones, in over a third of all FOIA appeals, more information is released, but just 1% of all FOIA requests are appealed. Although these problems have always been there, Jones said they have generally gotten worse under the Trump administration due to neglect and lack of attention. 

Jones emphasizes pressuring federal agencies with appeals and lawsuits. He oversees a newsroom-wide system to track FOIA requests.

“So at The Post, we’re trying to change the culture so that anytime that there’s a denial, we don’t take that at face value,” he said. “We appeal and then maybe sue … and the good news is that you can win.”

As a success story, Jones cited the Post’s recent reporting on the Afghanistan Papers, previously secret documents that reveal high-ranking officials’ pessimistic views on the Afghanistan War.

Essentially, the Post filed a FOIA lawsuit and used some National Security Archive documents and ultimately created a story showing that the government’s official rosy posture on the Afghanistan war was a lie and that they were losing the war and saying that they were winning the war to this day.”

Although Jones self identifies as more of a historian than a journalist, he said there is a synergy between the two professions. He hopes to continue helping reporters at the Post uncover stories like the Afghanistan Papers.

“There’s a lot of evils in the world and one small one that I like fighting is government secrecy,” Jones said. “I think that most of the time, not always, but most of the time when the government says that something is secret, probably the public should have the right to know it … FOIA is one tool in fighting the government to empower the citizenry and know what our government knows.”

Jones said that this kind of thinking was instilled in him during his time at LC: he learned to question and fight authority.

“I think that what I’m kind of realizing looking back — I graduated almost 15 years ago — is that I did learn here that I actually really did like fighting — fighting the government, fighting for what’s right, fighting authority … using bureaucratic warfare to force the government to give secrets.” 

Jones received the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award on Feb. 21 for his efforts advocating for public access to government information.

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