"America's Most Redacted" is the first article in a BuzzFeed series written with help from Columbia University's History Lab. This team of historians and data scientists is developing a "Declassification Engine" that turns documents into data and mines it for insights about the history and future of official secrecy. The stories draw from the lab's searchable database of over 2 million declassified government documents.
Last week, the U.S. government released a tranche of documents related to the 2011 raid on the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where Osama bin Laden spent the last years of his life. The declassification of the papers, which included bin Laden's correspondence and his reading materials, was incredibly public — advanced to the press and immediately scrutinized, not just for their content but for their timing, shortly after Seymour Hersh's expose in the London Review of Books called into question many of the basic facts that support the government's story about the operation.
Such commotion hardly greets the declassification of most American government secrets, which pass into the public record years after the information they contain would have caused a stir. And yet beyond their specifics, the patterns of information contained in these declassifications can yield enormous insight into the priorities of government and the nature of official secrecy.
Analyzing the data behind these patterns can answer a fascinating question: Who are the people the American government was most likely to conceal in its official documentation? Politicians? Diplomats? Spies?
With an archival platform that combines visual and textual analysis, the History Lab queried over 117,000 documents — more than 765,000 pages from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department — declassified at presidential libraries over the past 40 years. What they were looking for: names that were proportionally more likely to be blacked out — redacted — during the Eisenhower administration, to start. (Go here for a closer look at the Lab's methods.)
The resulting list of 10 men contains major world leaders and fairly obscure officials alike, and reflects the dominant foreign policy concern of the time, Soviet influence. And they are all linked by a single factor: The American government thought they were involved with things that should not be released to the public.
"There are diplomats as well as spies, and not all are enemies of the state," Matthew Connelly, a Columbia University history professor and the principal investigator at History Lab, told BuzzFeed News. "U.S. officials often erase names simply to save embarrassment. Now we are beginning to have the technology to measure this problem."
Here in order, are America's 10 most (proportionally) redacted names from 1953 to 1961:
1. Ismet Inonu
Pictured above between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Inonu was the second president of the Turkish Republic from 1938 to 1950, succeeding Kemal Ataturk. In the declassified excerpt below, American diplomats discuss political tension prior to a military coup in 1960 that preceded Inonu's return to power as prime minister.
"The opposition party maintains that the government is trying to have Mr. Inonu lynched. The Turkish Defense Minister recently remarked that the military leaders may have to intervene if the tension continues. If Inonu were killed, a revolt could take place in Turkey."
2. Azzam Pasha
An Egyptian diplomat, Azzam Pasha was the first secretary of the Arab League, serving from 1945 to 1952. He is perhaps most remembered for a much-disputed 1947 partial quote predicting a "war of extermination and momentous massacre" in the event of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
3. Willy Brandt
The chancellor of West Germany in the late 1960s and '70s, Brandt was, at the time of the document below, the recently elected mayor of Berlin. During his mayorship, Brandt became an important figure in the Cold War, and presided over the construction of the Berlin Wall. The document below describes Brandt as "strongly on our side."
4. Louis Joxe
The French minister of state in charge of Algerian affairs under Charles de Gaulle, Joxe negotiated the end of French control over the North African country in 1962. The document below refers to State Department correspondence with Joxe, then serving as secretary general in the Foreign Office, about the brutal Soviet response to the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
5. Harmodio Arias Madrid
6. Mohammad Mossadegh
The Iranian premier from 1951 to 1953, Mossadegh (pictured above with President Truman) nationalized Western oil concessions in the country, an action that brought him immense popularity and into direct conflict with the shah. In 1953, with support from the U.S. and Britain, the shah and Mossadegh's opponents deposed him, and he spent the rest of his life in prison and under house arrest. The below document was written during Mossadegh's 1953 trial for treason.
7. Charles Malik
A Lebanese Christian philosopher, Malik was the foreign minister of Lebanon, ambassador to the U.S., and the president of the United Nations General Assembly from 1958 to 1959. Malik fought against Syrian and Palestinian influence in Lebanon, and was a vocal proponent of the American military intervention in the country in 1958.
8. Patrice Lumumba
Lumumba was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a position he won in 1960 on the eve of the country's independence from Belgium. In the months after Lumumba's election, both Belgium and the United States conspired to have him assassinated — and were ultimately successful: Lumumba was eventually murdered by rival Congolese politicians funded by those two nations.
9. William Pawley
A businessman and the American ambassador to several South American countries, Pawley was personal friends with both President Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles. In the 1950s, he played a role in U.S.-backed coups against several leftist Central American leaders.
10. Prince Faisal
Pictured above with President Nixon, Faisal was king of Saudi Arabia for a decade in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time the documents below were written, however, he was crown prince and prime minister, and was clashing with his older brother, King Saud.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
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