British and American Policy on Intelligence Archives Never-Never Land and Wonderland

By: Richard J. Aldrich


This article original appeared in a fully footnoted version in Contemporary Record, Vol. 8, No. I (summer 1994) pp. 132-150.

Wesley K. Wark, a noted intelligence historian, once defined the status of British secret service archives as a “Never-Never Land.” In an elegant essay on British archival policy in the 1980s he explained how, before 1981, departments of state were told that secret intelligence materials were “never released to the Public Record Office (PRO).” Subsequent to the Wilson Committee White Paper of 1981, this guidance was changed, and departments were thereafter instructed that “the word ‘never’ should never be used.” The Wilson Committee considered that in the fullness of time all such records would eventually find their way into the public domain. But for those outside Whitehall, this intriguing double negative seemed to signal little material change, and secret service archives remained fa far-off places that no independent historian was ever likely to visit.

In the United States, the experience of historians working on secret service records is continually identified by writers as being very different. . . .