Freedom of Information Champion
Nate Jones BA ’05
Inside the Ukrainian Security Service building in downtown Kiev, Nate Jones sat elbow to elbow with other researchers in a tiny room. Ukrainian archivists brought him “piles and piles” of Soviet-era folders he’d requested from the KGB archives for research he was doing on Ukraine’s nuclear role in the Cold War.
“That building is the Ukrainian equivalent of our CIA headquarters. I was among the first Westerners invited there,” says Jones, who is the director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1985 to check rising government secrecy, the National Security Archive is a nonprofit that functions as “an investigative journalism center, open government advocate, international affairs research institute, and the largest repository of declassified U.S. documents outside the federal government.” In his position, Jones oversees requests and appeals that fall under the Freedom of Information Act and mandatory declassification review. He also conducts his own research and is editor of the blog Unredacted.
Jones, a history major while at Lewis & Clark, says he learned the science and art of research in Stephen Dow Beckham’s class on historical materials. He minored in Russian and considers the program’s professors, Tatiana Osipovich and Donna Seifer, and fellow students part of his college family. “My Lewis & Clark professors mentored me academically and repeatedly made sure that I behaved and stayed on track.”
During his junior year, Jones studied abroad in Russia. After graduation, he taught English for a year in Moscow, then returned to Washington, D.C., where he earned a master’s degree in history at George Washington University. An internship at the National Security Archive led to the full-time job he holds today.
In a wild quirk of fate, Jones’ connections with Lewis & Clark and the National Security Archive have intersected. “When I was writing my senior thesis at Lewis & Clark, I requested a key classified document,” says Jones. “Ten years later, it landed on my desk here in Washington—on my birthday.”
In addition to his Freedom of Information Act oversight role, Jones engages in research related to the Cold War. He has published a book—based on the classified document he requested while at Lewis & Clark—titled Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New Press, 2016). The book shows how a NATO exercise simulated nuclear launch procedures so realistically that it triggered a Warsaw Pact response “unparalleled in scale,” raising the specter of actual nuclear war.
“I argue that this incident led Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate an entire class of dangerous nuclear weapons,” says Jones. “Today, it’s a great folly that Presidents Trump and Putin are talking about reintroducing the same class of medium-range nuclear weapons.”
Despite the serious nature of his work, Jones’ sense of humor and adventurous spirit remain intact. He boasts a 125-piece baseball player bobblehead collection and recently hiked 485 miles of the Colorado Trail in 35 days with his brother. “Physically, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mentally it was rejuvenating.”
Faced with repeated document denials and a lengthy appeals process, Jones remains optimistic and unjaded. Every morning, he arrives at work to a pile of envelopes waiting to be opened. He loves the thick ones, which, like college applications, usually contain good news about declassified documents.
“Every day,” he says, “is a little bit like Christmas.”
—by Pattie Pace