A Matter of National Security: The Role of the National Archives in Protecting Citizens

October is American Archives Month, and we’re looking at moments in National Archives history that shed light on the importance of archives. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

On May 21, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the National Archives Building to an audience of members of Congress, cabinet members, his staff, and Presidential advisers. Attendees included the Acting Archivist of the United States, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General, the CIA Director, and the National Security Advisor.

The speech took place in the National Archives Rotunda, the exhibition hall where the founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are displayed (because there were lights, facsimile documents were on display during the speech). 

The speech focused on matters of national security. Just months after the start of the 2008 Great Recession, Obama maintained that the “single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe.” Obama then referenced the founding documents—to the President, the documents were not just “words written into aging parchment” but rather the foundation of “liberty and justice” as well as his family’s own personal experience in achieving the American Dream. 

Among other national security acts, such as closing Guantanamo Bay or banning enhanced interrogation techniques, Obama addressed his decision to release certain documents for public viewing. “National security requires a delicate balance. On the one hand, our democracy depends on transparency. On the other hand, some information must be protected from public disclosure for the sake of our security.”

Obama cited his decision to release memos issued by the George W. Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel that pertained to interrogation of terrorists. However, he opposed the release of certain photographs that were taken of detainees by U.S. personnel between 2002 and 2004. 

President Obama declared each decision as an important step in building a framework that protects both the American people and American values, and “strike the right balance between transparency and national security.” He ended his speech with a paean to the Constitution and the importance of maintaining American democratic values. 

Though this speech pertained largely to national security, its location at the National Archives Building was symbolic: the public viewing of government documents is central to maintaining core democratic values, and the National Archives is essential to upholding government transparency. The National Archives is the nation’s record keeper and holds documents and materials created by the federal government, including all executive agencies, Congress, and the courts. Access to federal government documents is important not only to hold the government accountable but also to inform the public on its government’s actions. 

Explore the National Archives Catalog for declassified documents relating to the United States Moon landing, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War, and many other topics.

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