Why top secret in Spain is forever

Historians are calling on the government to change the way it deals with classified material Documents remain under lock and key indefinitely, until the authorities decide to release them

Tereixa Constenla
This image from 1958 shows a Spanish amphibious craft unloading supplies during the Ifni War.
This image from 1958 shows a Spanish amphibious craft unloading supplies during the Ifni War.EFE

British historians have had their chance to stick their noses into what were once the most top secret records from the Falklands War (1982). The latest disclosure was a ream of private papers kept by the recently deceased former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, which reveals dissent among Conservatives over the war. But Spanish historians are not allowed the slightest peek at documents pertaining to significantly older military conflicts, such as the Ifni conflict (1957-58) or the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). All this classified information is still kept under lock and key in military archives, where access is intermittent and arbitrary.

Former Defense Minister Carme Chacón, of the Socialist Party, tried to partly redress this lack of transparency by proposing to declassify 10,000 records of events that took place between 1936 and 1968, and which no longer posed a threat to the security of the state. These included documents about concentration camps and work battalions created by the Franco regime right after winning the Civil War; government policy on the Spanish protectorate in Morocco; projects for weapons manufacturing prior to 1968; operations in the former Spanish province of Sidi Ifni in North Africa; and finding crews for Italian and German war ships at Spanish ports during WWII.

But her initiative never reached the Cabinet. General elections held in November 2011 handed power over to the conservative Popular Party (PP), although sources in the former Defense Ministry team say that "internal work was already completed" before that, and that the delay getting the project approved was just a problem of "scheduling."

This timid attempt at greater historical transparency dissolved completely under the current Popular Party government.

Historians' requests for information always run into a wall of official secrecy

"The new [defense] minister, Pedro Morenés, did not take too much time to decide that if the Socialist Party had not considered it opportune to declassify the material, then it would not be him who did so," says Francisco Espinosa, one of three historians (the other two are Mirta Núñez Díaz-Balart and Manuel Álvaro Núñez) who requested access to all this information in June 2012.

Their petition was backed by around 100 other historians and jurists, including Paul Preston, the British hispanist.

The bureaucratic exchange between the Defense Ministry and the historians - who were being counseled by Eva Moraga, a lawyer specializing in freedom of information requests - ended early this year with an official refusal to release the material, which the scholars argued was necessary to their research on 20th-century Spanish history. An appeal is still possible, but the historians are not sure they will go ahead with it right now.

"We'll have to get together and see what's to be done now, because it's unbelievable that they should be reticent about letting us investigate certain areas," says Mirta Núñez, director of the Historical Memory Chair at Complutense University.

Classified material

- Clandestine activities and broadcasting by Radio España Independiente (1946-68).

- Repatriation and discharge of expeditionary units in the former Spanish provinces of Ifni and Sahara (1939-1955).

- Contingency plans to deal with potential threats to national defense (1939-55).

- Crews for Italian and German war ships at Spanish ports (1940-46).

- Delivery of materials for the construction of planes by the US (1955).

- Organization and deployment of troops during the Spanish Civil War (1937-39).

The government is defending itself by claiming that, in the first place, there was never a report in favor of declassifying information under former minister Chacón: "There was no formalized exteriorization by the successive ministry heads of any proposal, report or resolution aimed at obtaining Cabinet approval for the declassification of documents pertaining to the indicated period," according to the ministry. In simpler words: there was never a proposal at all, even though EL PAÍS reported on the Defense Ministry's decision back in December 2011.

The Official Secrets Law, which dates back to 1968, has an anomalous effect compared with similar legislation in other Western countries: when a document is classified in Spain, it remains that way forever, unless the government specifically orders its release. (In fact, the law says this order must be given by the Junta of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a body that no longer even exists, since the law predates democracy in Spain).

Scholars of contemporary history thus have a limited field in which to conduct their research, since their requests for information always run into a wall of official secrecy. In practice, access to sensitive information inside the military archives often depends on the arbitrary decisions of their managers.

Lawyer Eva Moraga believes that the law should establish a time limit for a document to remain classified. "It cannot be forever; if the government in power does not decide to declassify it, then the document will never see the light," she says. Moraga also believes that material still within the legal timeframe should nevertheless be accessible "if there is a greater public interest in disseminating it."

The Defense Ministry always tends to maintain an "opaque" stand on the issue, regardless of the minister's political color, this legal specialist notes. "They feel that requests affect the ministry, and thus national security."

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