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What Would You Do If You Could Censor Your Past? A Visit to the UK's Secret Archives

VICE News has learned that some UK Foreign Office 'sensitivity reviewers' are reading and redacting historic documents that they themselves wrote while working as diplomats.
Photo by Katie Englehart

Before the UK government releases documents to the public, they must be "sensitivity reviewed" — and sometimes redacted. Each department weeds files in its own particular way. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is especially scrupulous. It reviews documents page-by-page, word-by-word.

In the last year, the FCO has hired a dozen new "sensitivity reviewers" to review the office's most historic holdings, in many cases, files that are long overdue for release.


Each of the FCO's 37 weeders is a former senior diplomat. The most inexperienced of the lot has 26 years of government work behind him. The head of the team spent 41 years serving British diplomatic interests.

And herein lies the rub.

VICE News has learned that some FCO weeders are reviewing and redacting documents that they themselves wrote while working as diplomats. In other words, a number of retired diplomats have been granted the power to retroactively censor their own historical legacies.

Such was revealed on Wednesday, at a tour of Hanslope Park: a secretive, barbed wire-enclosed facility in Buckinghamshire, England, that the FCO shares with intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6.

VICE News gained access to the day's event, which was organized for a small cluster of historians and archivists — but the access had conditions. On Wednesday, I could walk through rows of neatly labeled cardboard boxes, but I could not peer at the yellowing documents inside. Now, I am allowed to report on what was said at Hanslope Park, but not who said it.

At one point on the tour, a handful of attendees was brought to the basement of a brick building that houses historic FCO files — on shelves with titles like "Local Personalities Reports 1926-1998" and "Numerous captured records of the German, Italian, and Japanese Governments."

Standing alongside those shelves, a FCO official revealed that he has "sensitivity reviewed" his own decades-old diplomatic reports. On another occasion, the official furthered, a sensitivity reviewer was asked to sensitivity review a document that he had written, years ago, to a second sensitivity reviewer about a third sensitivity reviewer.


Recalling the incident, the FCO official chuckled. But the gathered historians looked aghast.

"If I had to redact my own archives," said one eminent scholar, "I know what I would do."

The FCO official bristled. Documents, he charged, are absolutely not being censored on the grounds of embarrassment — if they happen, for instance, to paint British foreign policy in an unflattering light. "If they're embarrassing: tough!"

Related: The UK Has Just Unearthed New 'Top Secret' Colonial-Era Government Files

And so passed an especially touchy moment at "Records Day," a half-day event organized by the FCO as part of its "engagement agenda… to be as transparent as we can be," in the words of one official who I am not permitted to name or describe.

Over tea, coffee, and chocolate biscuits, historians and archivists were updated on the status of over half a million historic FCO files that are overdue for review — and which, in some cases, were unlawfully retained by the government for many years, in flagrant violation of the UK Public Records Act.

Hanslope Park, a sprawling former manor estate, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence in 1941, and then used as an operational hub during World War II. The spot was prized for its strategic location — a bit out of the way, but still a quick hop to Oxford or Cambridge. Today, the compound houses a number of government departments, including "Her Majesty's Government Communications Centre," where government scientists reportedly develop counter-espionage technology.


This year's Records Day was held nearly four months after the FCO uncovered a staggering 170,000 "legacy files" in an audit of government offices in Britain and abroad. At the time, the office provided scant detail of the intelligence contained in the files — but earlier this week, VICE News reported that the document cache contains Colonial Office records and some with "Top Secret" classifications.

On Wednesday, FCO officials revealed, for the first time, some details about the files — such as where they came from.

Remarkably, the FCO claims to have "discovered" Colonial Office files at Hanslope Park itself. Exactly how these files were lost — within a highly developed complex that takes just minutes to walk across — was not addressed. Other documents were pulled from some 270 FCO overseas posts.

The FCO is currently assessing "what is the value of this material as historical documents." Material deemed to be valuable will be scheduled for release, though the process could take many years — if not decades.

FCO administrators also discussed the question of why it took so long for the files to be located. According to one official, the FCO conducted regular audits of its holdings, as mandated by law, until the mid-90s, at which point the process "lapsed," creating "gaps in FCO records management." In 2014, the audit process was "revived" and the office "became aware" of 170,000 new files.


But why, VICE News asked, were colonial-era files not uncovered in earlier audits? They probably were uncovered, one FCO official admitted. But then no action was taken.

So previous FCO's audits were not conducted properly? "That is not necessarily a relevant question," an FCO official replied.

Pressed for more detail about the contents of the 170,000 files, the FCO explained that about 75 percent consist of mundane documents that are unlikely to ever be released. Most, he said, "are routine… ephemera."

Related: Britain Just 'Found' Another 170,000 Unlawfuly Withheld Government Files

This is not the first time that the FCO has uncovered purportedly long-lost documents, from far-flung locations. In 2011 — after years of denial, and amid a protracted legal battle — the FCO admitted to unlawfully holding 1,500 Kenya files at Hanslope Park. Shortly thereafter, the FCO conceded that it was actually holding 8,800 — and eventually, 20,000 — colonial-era files, covering 37 former colonies and territories.

Historians were incensed.

Some of the files, which have since been released to the National Archives, were damning indeed. A number of documents detailed the country's participation in the Atlantic slave trade. One file contained information on "Nazi War Criminals in Britain." Many others detailed British efforts to destroy incriminating documents — as London pulled out of its Imperial backyard.


Two years later, in 2013, the FCO admitted to holding another 1.2 million (later, revised down to 600,000) historical files at Hanslope Park.

Among the papers are 77 meters of "Nazi persecution case files," a quarter of a million Hong Kong files, and the personal desk diary of the British diplomat-turned-Soviet spy Donald Duart Maclean.

But what these audits have never turned up, rued one historian, on Wednesday, are 170 boxes of "Top Secret" UK government files that vanished from the archival record in the 1990s. The top secret boxes are thought to have contained, among other things, the personal papers of Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta. Reportedly, the boxes were last recorded as existing on March 8, 1991. By September 24, 1992, they were recorded as not existing.

"What happened in the meantime," said the historian, "is anyone's guess. My guess is that they were destroyed."

Related: Here's What the British Government Has Been Hiding From You

A 2014 report on government records, commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron, concluded that "many [UK] departments have caches of legacy files" that are overdue for review, and whose contents "are often unclear." This, the report judged, is "of concern."

The paper described the FCO as being "the department with the greatest difficulties meeting its obligations under the Public Records Act."

But on Wednesday, other historians commended the FCO for its efforts. The Foreign Office, they pointed out, is at least transparent about its failings — and actively wading through its miles upon miles of accumulated historic findings.

Ending the day's formal presentations, one historian expressed tepid faith that the whole FCO documents saga — with its missing archives, evidence of imperial purge operations, and allegations of high-level state coverups — had reached its finale. "I like to think that there is no danger of finding another trove of documents lurking in this building. But I thought that in 2011 as well."

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart