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Good Questions: How to Track Down a Top-Secret Letter

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Posted February 5, 2014

In this age of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, a lot of current U.S. classified information is in the news and floating around on the web, should you choose to seek it out. But how do you find top-secret communications between world leaders from the past? This was the question I received via IM recently.

The declassified “top secret” letter sent by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to U.S. President Richard Nixon (via several intermediaries) in October 1973. Click on the image to see the full document on the National Security Archive website.

The declassified “top secret” letter sent by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to U.S. President Richard Nixon (via several intermediaries) in October 1973. Click on the image to see the full document on the National Security Archive website.

According to several articles, in October 1973 Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir sent an urgent letter to President Richard Nixon via Henry Kissinger. The researcher (let’s call her Mary) had already checked many primary sources, databases, and yes, even Google. But she could not locate the original letter. Only quoted fragments of the declassified document could be found.

Rule #1 of library detective work: Go with your gut (especially if it’s an experienced gut). If you think it should be found in the National Security Archive database and Mary didn’t find it there—look again, trying other search strategies. So I did.

No luck there. This question obviously would take more persistence as well as intestinal fortitude. I checked the print Foreign Relations of the U.S. and other sources in the Reference area then redoubled my efforts. (For those with less research experience in this area, there are clues in the library’s guide to International & Transnational Relations.)

In true government document fashion, my search results often had obscure titles that made it difficult to know if I had hit pay dirt. With a combination of persistence, collaboration, educated guessing, and serendipity….

BINGO! Document 7 in a search of the National Security Archive website through GWU was described thus: “Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Brent Scowcroft to Kissinger, 5 October 1973, enclosing message from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (passed through Israeli chargé Shalev).” The murky type on the cover page said “Top Secret/Exclusively Eyes Only.” Coo-oo-uhl. Once I deciphered the trail of all the people through whom it was transmitted, it became clear that the next page was Meir’s own message. I IM’d Mary, who excitedly confirmed this by matching some of the quotes she had found.

Although we found our answer on the free web after all, it took a library to index and share the document and librarian intervention to track it down. You might call us everyone’s favorite “intelligence agency,” mining and exposing information for the common good.

Source: Duke University

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