Declassification is the process of documents that formerly were classified becoming available to the public, under the principle of freedom of information. Procedures for declassification vary by country.

United States[edit | edit source]

Automatic declassification[edit | edit source]

In accordance with Executive Order 12958, as amended, an executive agency must declassify its documents after 25 years unless they fall under one of the nine exemptions outline by Section 3.3(b) of the Order. Classified documents 25 years or older must be reviewed by any and all agencies that possess an interest in the sensitive information found in the document.

Systematic declassification[edit | edit source]

The Order also requires that agencies establish and conduct a program for systematic declassification review. This only applies to records that are of permanent historical value and less than 25 years old. Section 3.4The Executive Order 12958, as amended, clearly specifies that agencies shall prioritize the systematic review of records based upon the degree of researcher interest and the likelihood of declassification upon review. After declassification, the documents from many agencies are accessioned at the National Archives and Records Administration and put on the open shelves for the public.

Mandatory Declassification Review[edit | edit source]

A Mandatory Declassification Review, or MDR, is requested by an individual in an attempt to declassify a document for release to the public. These challenges are presented to the agency whose equity, or "ownership", is invested in the document. Once an MDR request has been submitted to an agency for the review of a particular document, the agency must respond either with an approval, a denial, or the inability to confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of the requested document. After the initial request, an appeal can be filed with the agency by the requester. If the agency refuses to declassification of that document, then a decision from a higher authority can be provided by the appellate panel, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP).

Freedom of Information Act[edit | edit source]

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the implementation of freedom of information legislation in the United States. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966 (Amended 2002), and went into effect the following year. This act allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the U.S. government. Any member of the public may ask for a classified document, to be declassified and made available to him/her for any reason. The requestor is required to specify with reasonable certainty the documents he is interested in. If the agency refuses to declassify, the decision can be taken to the courts for a review. The Freedom of Information Act (United States) does not guarantee that such documents will be released. Such documents usually fall under one of the nine of the declassification exemptions that protect highly sensitive information.

History and the National Archives and Records Administration[edit | edit source]

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) plays a leading role in the Executive branch’s declassification efforts. The inextricable connection between NARA’s overall mission and declassification of records having permanent historical value is institutionalized in the governing Executive Order 12958, as amended, in a number of areas. Over the years, NARA has achieved great success with respect to declassification of records having permanent historical value and early on established its leadership role.

NARA first established a formal declassification program for records in 1972, and between 1973 and 1996 reviewed nearly 650 million pages of historically valuable federal records related to World War II, the Korean War, and American foreign policy in the 1950s as part of its systematic declassification review program. From 1996 to 2006, NARA had processed and released close to 460 million pages of federal records, working in partnership with the agencies that originated the records. Over the years, NARA has processed more than 1.1 billion pages of national security classified federal records, resulting in the declassification and release of ninety-one percent of the records.

NARA has also provided significant support to several special projects to review and release federal records on topics of extraordinary public interest such as POW/MIAs or Nazi War Crimes. Additionally, NARA works closely with reference archivists to ensure that the federal records most in demand by researchers receive priority for declassification review and performs review on demand for individuals who need records that do not fall into a priority category. NARA has improved or developed electronic systems to support declassification, automating some processes that used to be done by hand ensuring a more complete record of declassification actions. Finally, with assistance from the Air Force, NARA established the Interagency Referral Center (IRC) in order to support agencies as they seek access their equities in federal records at the National Archives at College Park and to ensure that high demand records are processed first.

Presidential libraries[edit | edit source]

In addition to the successes with federal records, NARA has achieved noteworthy success with respect to the classified holdings of the Presidential Libraries, which hold in excess of 30 million classified pages, including approximately 8 million pages from the administrations of President Hoover through Carter that are subject to automatic declassification on December 31, 2006. The foreign policy materials in Presidential collections are among the highest-level foreign policy documents in the Federal government and are of significant historical value. Regardless of the challenges posed by the nature of the information and the complexity of equity issues in Presidential materials, the Presidential Libraries have a long tradition of safeguarding these materials while staying on the cutting age of declassification.

From 1995 to 2006, the national Presidential Library system reviewed, declassified, and released 1,603,429 pages of Presidential materials using systematic guidelines delegated to the Archivist of the United States. NARA has also hosted on-site agency review teams at the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Ford Presidential Libraries to manage classified equities and all Presidential Libraries have robust mandatory declassification review programs to support requests of individual researchers.

National Declassification Initiative (NDI)[edit | edit source]

Through a pilot National Declassification initiative (NDI), NARA seeks to establish a more efficient and effective means for the referral of classified equities between Executive branch entities, particularly with the high concentration of referrals at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. A number of agencies have agreed, in principle, to create the NDI, with the objective of more effectively integrating their work and creating a more reliable Executive-branch declassification program. The National Declassification Initiative seeks to:

  • preclude redundancies in security reviews;
  • promote accurate and consistent declassification decisions;
  • improve equity-recognition;
  • develop centralized priorities and databases; and
  • enhance transparency to the public.

The creation of an NDI would facilitate improvements to the system such that records are reviewed no more than twice prior to becoming subject to automatic declassification provisions:

  • a pre-accession review by record owner (required only if claiming exemption); and
  • a post-accession review by NDI, within a specified period after accessioning, to simultaneously address all referrals and assess the quality of agency reviews.

Moreover, the NDI can minimize the possibility of the inadvertent but unauthorized disclosure of information in declassified and released permanent records at NARA. Finally, in support of the NDI, NARA can better integrate the life-cycle of records and the life-cycle of classified information in order to influence both sound records management and sound declassification. Several key recommendations in this area include:

  • establishment of specialized training for records managers and security professionals;
  • increased oversight of agency records management activities with respect to the unique nature of classified records;
  • consideration of a dedicated process for the storage and processing of classified permanent records pending declassification and release.

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

United States[edit | edit source]

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