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Declassification
Declassification - Frequently Asked Questions

WHAT IS AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Automatic declassification is the declassification of information based upon the occurrence of a specific date or event as determined by the original classification authority; or the expiration of a maximum time frame for the duration of classification established under the Order (25 years).

WHY IS AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION IMPORTANT?

The automatic declassification process increases the potential release of formerly classified national security information to the general public and researchers, enhancing their knowledge of the United States’ democratic institutions and history, while at the same time ensuring that information which can still cause damage to national security continues to be protected.

WHAT IS THE OBJECTIVE OF AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

The objective of automatic declassification is to declassify information without compromising national security. The presumption is that 25 year old information is declassified unless it clearly falls under one or more of the 9 exemption categories in section 3.3(b) of the Order and has been specifically exempted by an agency head or senior agency official.

WHAT IS THE AUTHORITY FOR AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information”

WHAT RECORDS ARE SUBJECT TO AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Only 25 year old or older records that have been determined to have permanent historical value in accordance with title 44, U.S.C. are subject to automatic declassification. Non-record, temporary, and marked “Unclassified” records are not subject to the automatic declassification requirement of the Order. Unscheduled records are not subject to automatic declassification until they are scheduled as permanent.

HOW IS IT DETERMINED WHICH RECORDS HAVE PERMANENT HISTORICAL VALUE?

In accordance with title 44, U.S.C., records having permanent historical value are Presidential papers or Presidential records and the records of an agency that the Archivist of the U.S. has determined should be maintained permanently. The permanent status of DOJ records can be determined by consulting the component records schedule or by contacting the component records officer.

WHERE ARE THE RECORDS LOCATED THAT MUST BE REVIEWED FOR AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Permanently valuable classified records are located in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), NARA Federal Records Centers, and in specially designated secure DOJ locations. Contact component records officers for assistance with the location and identification of relevant permanent records.

WHAT DEADLINES ARE ASSOCIATED WITH AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

DOJ declassification reviews must be completed by September 30 of each year as records become 25 years old to ensure compliance with the Order’s deadline of December 31 of each succeeding year as records become 25 years old.

WHAT IS AN “EXEMPTION”?

Classified information in records that requires continued protection is referred to as an “exemption”. Agency heads may exempt 25 year old, permanently valuable classified records from automatic declassification only when the information contained has been determined to satisfy one or more of the exemption categories in section 3.3(b) of the Order. Information exempted from automatic declassification under this section remains subject to the mandatory and systematic declassification review provisions of the Order.

UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES MAY AN AGENCY EXEMPT RECORDS FROM AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

To exempt records from automatic declassification, agencies must have the specific authority to extend the duration of classification beyond 25 years in the form of a File Series Exemption and/or an Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) approved declassification guide. Information may be considered for exemption if one or more of the following exemption categories apply:

  • 25X1 – reveal the identity of a confidential human source, a human intelligence source, a relationship with an intelligence or security service of a foreign government or international organization, or a non-human intelligence source; or impair the effectiveness of an intelligence method currently in use, available for use, or under development;
  • 25X2 – reveal information that would assist in the development, production, or use of weapons of mass destruction;
  • 25X3 – reveal information that would impair U.S. cryptologic systems or activities;
  • 25X4 – reveal information that would impair the application of state-of-the-art technology within a US weapon system;
  • 25X5 – reveal formally named or numbered U.S. military war plans that remain in effect, or reveal operational or tactical elements of prior plans that are contained in such active plans;
  • 25X6 – reveal information including foreign government information, that would cause serious harm to relations between the U.S. and a foreign government, or to ongoing diplomatic activities of the U.S;
  • 25X7 – reveal information that would impair the current ability of U.S. government officials to protect the President, Vice President, and other protectees for whom protection services, in the interest of national security, are authorized;
  • 25X8 – reveal information that would seriously impair current national security emergency preparedness plans or reveal current vulnerabilities of systems, installations, or infrastructures relating to the national security;
  • 25X9 – violate a statute, treaty, or international agreement that does not permit the automatic or unilateral declassification of information at 25 years.

IS THE ABILITY TO IDENTIFY OR DESCRIBE DAMAGE TO NATIONAL SECURITY SUFFICIENT TO EXEMPT RECORDS FROM AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

No. The criterion for exempting information is higher than those for classifying information in the first place. For example, while information relating to foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States is eligible for classification provided it meets the other standards for classification, such information can only be exempt from automatic declassification if it would clearly and demonstrably impair relations between the United States and a foreign government, or clearly and demonstrably undermine ongoing diplomatic activities of the United States.

DOES DOJ HAVE ANY APPROVED AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION EXEMPTIONS?

Yes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Security Division/Office of Intelligence (NSD/OI), and the Office of Information Policy (OIP) have ISCAP approved declassification guides. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is currently coordinating its declassification guide for ISCAP submission. The FBI and NSD/OI also have approved File Series Exemptions.

IS FOREIGN GOVERNMENT INFORMATION (FGI) SUBJECT TO AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Yes. FGI is subject to automatic declassification unless specifically exempted by an approved file series exemption or declassification guide. All classified or sensitive FGI will be referred to or coordinated with the Department of State.

IS SENSITIVE COMPARTMENTED INFORMATION (SCI) SUBJECT TO AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Yes. SCI is subject to automatic declassification unless specifically exempted by an approved file series exemption or declassification guide. All SCI information will be referred to the appropriate member(s) of the Intelligence Community for declassification action.

IS INFORMATION THAT REVEALS THE IDENTITY OF A CONFIDENTIAL HUMAN SOURCE OR A HUMAN INTELLIGENCE SOURCE SUBJECT TO AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

No. The identity of a confidential human source or a human intelligence source is not subject to automatic declassification. The marking for the exemption of this specific information, which also must be approved through ISCAP is “25X1-human”. Information about “non-human intelligence sources and methods” is subject to automatic declassification.

IS RESTRICTED DATA (RD)/FORMERLY RESTRICTED DATA (FRD) SUBJECT TO AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

No. RD/FRD is classified under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, and is excluded from any provision of the Order. Only designated officials within the Department of Energy (DOE) may declassify RD/FRD records. Any record determined to contain RD/FRD may not be reviewed for declassification of national security information until the Secretary of Energy, or the Secretary of Energy in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense for FRD, has determined that the RD/FRD markings may be removed. Classified national security information in RD/FRD records is subject to the Order, and will be referred to the DOE and appropriate other government agencies.

WHAT IS AN “EQUITY”?

An “equity” is information that was originated, classified by, or concerns the activities of another government agency or organization and only they can declassify it. Records that contain other agency “equities” must be referred to those agencies for declassification review.

AT WHAT POINT DOES A CLASSIFIED PERMANENT RECORD THAT HAS BEEN REFERRED TO ONE OR MORE OTHER GOVERNMENT AGENCIES BECOME DECLASSIFIED?

A referred record becomes declassified upon final declassification action by the referring agency based upon the results of the other agency reviews, or automatically without benefit of additional review if not acted upon by those agencies within a specific time frame and after appropriate referral notification.

MUST A RECORD BE REVIEWED IN ORDER FOR IT TO BE AUTOMATICALLY DECLASSIFIED?

No. An agency may subject its own records to automatic declassification without benefit of a review provided they contain no other agency’s information. However, any record that contains other government agency equities must be referred to that agency for declassification review before being subject to automatic declassification. Automatic declassification will ONLY apply to permanent classified records that have been properly referred to equity agencies, but not acted upon by those agencies within a specific time frame.

ARE THERE PROVISIONS FOR INFORMATION THAT WAS INADVERTENTLY NOT REVIEWED BEFORE THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION?

Yes. After consultation with the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, an agency head may delay automatic declassification for up to 3 years from the date of discovery of classified records that were inadvertently not reviewed prior to the effective date of automatic declassification.

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF STANDARD DECLASSIFICATION MARKINGS?

The intent of uniform, conspicuous and standard markings is to leave no doubt about the classified status of the information. If standard declassification markings are not affixed to declassified records uncertainty is created for cleared holders of the record as to its classification status.

DOES AUTOMATIC DECLASSIFICATION EQUATE AUTOMATIC DISCLOSURE?

No. Classification is but one basis for an agency to withhold the disclosure of records or information. A declassified record may still contain information covered by additional restrictions that would require continued withholding of information from disclosure.

WHAT IS AN “INTEGRAL FILE BLOCK”?

An “internal file block” is a distinct component of a file series that should be maintained as a separate unit in order to ensure the integrity of the records. An integral file block may consist of a set of records covering either a specific topic or a range of time such as presidential administration or a 5-year retirement schedule within a specific file series that is retired from active use as a group.

CAN INFORMATION THAT HAS BEEN AUTOMATICALLY DECLASSIFIED BE RECLASSIFIED?

Yes. Information that has not previously been disclosed to the public under proper authority may be classified or reclassified after an agency has received a request for it under the FOIA, Presidential Records Act, 44 USC 2204(c)(1), the Privacy Act of 1974, or the mandatory review provisions of E.O. 13526, only if such classification or reclassification meets the requirements of E.O. 13526, and is accomplished on a document-by-document basis with the personal participation or under the direction of the agency head, the deputy agency head, or the senior agency official. Information may not be reclassified after declassification and release to the public under proper authority.

WHAT IS A MANDATORY DECLASSIFICATION REVIEW (MDR)?

MDR is a mechanism through which the public can request declassification review of classified records, regardless of age or origin, subject to certain limitations set forth in E.O. 13526.

WHAT IS THE INFORMATION SECURITY OVERSIGHT OFFICE (ISOO)?

ISOO is responsible to the President for policy and oversight of the Government-wide security classification system and the National Industrial Security Program (NISPOM). ISOO receives authority from E.O. 13526, and E.O. 12829, as amended, “National Industrial Security Program.” ISOO is a component of the NARA and receives policy and program guidance from the National Security Council (NSC).

WHAT IS THE INTERAGENCY SECURITY CLASSIFICATION APPEALS PANEL?

The ISCAP provides one of the necessary checks and balances tot he President’s classification program outlined in E.O. 13526. Additionally, the ISCAP helps provide Federal employees with assistance in classification and declassification decisions through its function of deciding on exemptions from automatic declassification submitted by agency heads. The ISCAP also provides a venue for the public to present appeals concerning requests for declassification of classified information through the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) process. All information classified under the provisions of E.O. 13526, with limited exception, can be subject to a request for MDR. As the highest appellate body for declassification decisions, the ISCAP may decide on MDR requests denied at the agency level.

Updated: November 2011
Open Data at DOJ
For government-wide FOIA information including how to make a FOIA request to other federal agencies, please visit FOIA.GOV.
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