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Declassified Government Documents

About Declassified Documents | Security Classification | Guides | FOIA Information | Collections at UC Berkeley | Internet Collections and Indexes | Presidential Libraries

About Declassified Documents

Documents may be classified for many reasons - issues of national security or privacy. A popular misconception is that when a document is declassified, it is somehow systematically made available to the public, for example, distributed to depository libraries. This is most often not the case. Exceptions to this might be

As there are no clear patterns of publication for most declassified documents, it falls to the researcher interested in a document that is declassified to research which agency created the document, who may have researched the document originally, and where it might be now. The guides and resources shown below are intended to assist the research in finding federal records that have been declassified as part of the routine declassification, as well as records that are declassified through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and other kinds of investigations.

Security Classification

Executive Order 12958 (Classified National Security Information, April 17, 1995) prescribes a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information. Information on Declassification and Automatic Declassification provides detailed information on the National Archives declassification procedures. Generally, the Records Declassification Division of the National Archives systematically reviews security-classified documents after they reach 25 years of age. A notable exception to the 25-year rule are the Census records. For privacy reasons, the Census has a 72 year declassification rule. The U.S. House of Representatives has used a 50 year declassification rule. After the records are reviewed most are open for the public to use.

The government has had many reviews of security classification. A good article covering this is:
HC Relyea, "Security classification reviews and the search for reform." Government Information Quarterly, 1999, V16 N1:5-27.

A review of security classification is in the Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Specific information on classification may be found in Part II of the report. This report provides an excellent overview of the scope of classified documents, and which agencies are not complying with the Executive Order. Chapter III, pg 56 states that:

Therefore any review of declassified materials must include materials released under FOIA, as well as other material released under mandatory classification provisions. For more information on security classification issues, there is other material in the more popular press on this topic. A subject search "Security classification (Government documents)--United States" in the online catalog will bring up many titles.


These texts provide a starting place for the researcher by explaining the the organization of the records, or by providing background and references on a topic.

In addition to the guides, researchers will find other works on these topics (e.g. Secrets : the CIA's war at home by Angus Mackenzie) have excellent bibliographies which should be used when researching individuals, events or covert operations. Histories of the agencies (e.g. Body of secrets : anatomy of the ultra-secret National Security Agency : from the Cold War through the dawn of a new century by James Bamford) or biographies of notable persons such as William J. Donovan or J. Edgar Hoover can provide valuable background on the agencies and the activities as well.

The encyclopedia of American intelligence and espionage : from the Revolutionary War to the present. G.J.A. O'Toole. New York : Facts on File, c1988.
UB271.U5 O85 1988 GREF
References individuals, committees, and operations. Many of the entries have footnotes.
United States intelligence : an encyclopedia. Edited by Bruce W. Watson, Susan M. Watson, Gerald W. Hopple. New York : Garland Pub., 1990.
UB271.U5.U57 1990 GREF and JK468.I6 U57 1990 DREF
Brief entries, but excellent footnotes. Focuses more on operations and definitions of terms than listing individuals.
Watson, Cynthia Ann. U.S. national security policy groups : institutional profiles. New York : Greenwood Press, 1990.
UA23.W364 1990 GREF and Main Stacks
Haines, Gerald K. A reference guide to United States Department of State special files. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, c1985.
CD3031 1985 GREF
These files are often found listed by title in the online catalog. For a quick list search by title: "state department files" on Pathfinder or Melvyl.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)/Privacy Act Information

Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (Public Law 89-554 [5 USC Section 552]) was the first law to establish an effective legal right of access to government information. The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 (EFOIA) (Public Law 104-231 [5 USC Section 552]) directs each agency to establish:

The following titles and web sites provide good background to FOIA and Privacy Act issues and laws, including the 9 exclusions. They also provide information for those who want to file a FOIA request with an agency. Most federal agencies have web sites with information about how that agency implements FOIA as well. A search of the relevant agency website should product the necessary information.

Collections at UC Berkeley

Most declassified materials at UC Berkeley were purchased by The Library. Included in these are:

FBI Files
The FBI has released surveillance files on various individuals and organizations (e.g. Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, and the NAACP). To find these files, search Melvyl or Pathfinder by title word for the term "fbi file"
The following books provide a lot of good background on the agency, its records and more, for the researcher:
Unlocking the files of the FBI : a guide to its records and classification system by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart. Wilmington, Del. : Scholarly Resources, 1993.
HV8144.F43 H35 1993 GREF
The FBI : an annotated bibliography and research guide, by Athan Theoharis. New York : Garland, 1994.
HV8144.F43.T49 1994 GREF (another copy in Main)
CIA files
The Library has acquired materials freely released, as well as declassified materials For a short listing, search by corporate author: United States. Central Intelligence Agency and "not" publication format: maps.
NARA - the National Archives and Records Administration
NARA's primary purpose is to acquire, preserve, and make available for research the most valuable records of the federal government, as well as the papers of each President since Hoover.

The Archival Research Catalog (ARC) is the online catalog of NARA's nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, Regional Archives and Presidential libraries. ARC contains information about a wide variety of NARA's holdings across the country. Although ARC contains more than 3,000 microfilm publications descriptions, 607,000 archival holdings descriptions, and 124,000 digital copies, it represents only a limited portion of NARA's vast holdings. more information...

See also: Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States [CD3026 1995 Doe Reference Gov/Stat].

GREF has several hundred finding aids published by the National Archives. These are cataloged individually, however to get an idea of what is listed, search for the call number "CD3023.A2x" or search for the series "National Archives microfilm publications. Pamphlet describing" Most are only a few pages in length. Both GLADIS and the pamphlet should indicate if the microfilm is owned at Berkeley or one of the UC campuses.
Scholarly Resources reproduces NARA microfilm and is the authorized distributor. See: Microfilm Resources for Research, a comprehensive catalog [CD 3026 1996 Doe Reference].
Department of State
The library owns the microfilm for many sets from the Department of State filmed at the National Archives. Titles to search under include:
diplomatic instructions
despatches from u.s. consul#
records of the department of state relating to internal affairs of ...
records of the department of state relating to political relations between ...
GREF and DREF have compiled some lists of these resources relating to areas of the world (not all have been updated recently, so be sure to check the catalogs for new acquisitions):

Africana Microform Resources
Microform Collections Relating to Eastern Europe
Microform Collections Relating to Latin America
Microform Collections Relating to Subsaharan Africa
Microform Collections Relating to the Middle East and North Africa

The Dept. of State also publishes Foreign relations of the United States. This series presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity. Produced by the State Department's Office of the Historian, the series began in 1861 and now comprises more than 350 volumes. The volumes published since 1980 increasingly contain declassified records from all the foreign affairs agencies.

An article about the series and how it is created is Page Putnam Millers' "The integrity of the U.S. Department of State's historical series is at stake." Government Publications Review, 18 (1991): 317-323. The footnotes for this article provide additional background on the series.

National Security Council
The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council (NSC) and its membership (the President, Vice-President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.) to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and other departments and agencies of the government to operate more effectively on matters involving the national security.

As a part of its work the NSC generated many documents including National Security Council Actions, National Security Action Memoranda, National Security Study Memoranda, Presidential Review Memoranda, Presidential Decision Directives, and Presidential Directives. The guides provide an explanation of these document "types" as well as other documents which were specific to presidential administrations. The guides also list each of the documents reproduced in the microfilm. The originals of the documents microfilmed here are housed at the National Archives as "National Security Council Files, Record Group #273."

United States. National Security Council. Documents of the National Security Council, Washington, D.C. : University Publications of America.
Guide: UA23.15.I53 1994 GREF (guide to basic set, and supplements 1-4)
Guide: UA23 A12 G85 GREF (supplements 5-8)
Microfilm: 18908 UA News/Micro
Microfilm 18908 UA suppl.1 - suppl 8. News/Micro

Internet Collections and Indexes of Declassified material:

Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS) UC Only
DDRS is a collection of declassified material from presidential libraries. The libraries receive declassified documents from various government agencies: the White House, the CIA, the FBI, the State Department and others. As researchers have visited the libraries and requested documents, the libraries have copied them and sent them to DDRS for scanning, creating a collection of more that 75,000 documents. The database ranges from the years immediately following World War II, when declassified documents were first made widely available, through the 1970's. Nearly every major foreign and domestic even of these years is covered: the Cold War, Vietnam, foreign policy shifts, the civil rights movement and others. The documents range in size and scope from telegrams, correspondence and unevaluated field reports to lengthy background studies and detailed minutes of cabinet level meetings.

Because of the method by which the materials have been selected, the collection isn't considered comprehensive, and researchers should use this tool in addition to others available.

Digital National Security Archive UC Only
The Digital National Security Archive contains the most comprehensive collection of primary documents available. Policy documents including presidential directives, memos, diplomatic dispatches, meeting notes, independent reports, briefing papers, White House communications, email, confidential letters and other secret material. The Digital National Security Archive contains twenty collections on topics ranging from Afghanistan, to Presidential Directives on National Security from Truman to Clinton.
Agency Collections:

Several agencies have established their own "electronic collections" of declassified material. Most of the agencies listed here do not have large publication programs.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Electronic Reading Room via Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI documents represented by the electronic documents were taken from the Freedom of Information Act Reading Room at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. These FBI documents have been scanned from paper copies as released to FOIA requesters over the years. Categories of materials include: Espionage, Famous Persons, Gangster Era, Historical Interest, Unusual Phenomena, Violent Crime. There is also an alphabetical index
Electronic Reading Room via Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
The CIA has established this site to provide the public with an overview of access to CIA information, including electronic access to previously released documents.
OpenNet via Department of Energy
OpenNet includes references to all documents declassified and made publicly available after October 1, 1994. New references are added periodically as they occur. These collections include citations to several types of documents. Some have been declassified in total, and are termed "declassified." Others have had classified or other restricted information removed to produce a "sanitized" copy. The term "redacted" is sometimes used to refer to these documents.

OpenNet is intended to make information that is no longer classified more readily available to the public. This action will support the processes envisioned by the Openness Initiative of Public Awareness, Public Education, Public Input, and Public Access.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Electronic Reading Room via National Archives and Records Administration.
This site contains information routinely available to the public as well as documents frequently requested under the Freedom of Information Act. It will continue to grow as they records in which the public expresses an interest.
Declassification Initiatives via National Security Agency
Under the provisions of Executive Order 12958 (Classified National Security Information), dated 17 April 1995, NSA reviews for declassification all permanently classified documents 25 years or older. As these documents are declassified, they are turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Electronic Reading Room State Department
The primary purpose of the Reading Room is to make available to the public Department of State records which have been declassified and released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or other information access programs administered by the Office of IRM Programs and Services.
Non-Governmental Sources

National Security Archive via George Washington University
Electronic Briefing Books provide online access to critical declassified records on issues including U.S. national security, foreign policy, diplomatic and military history, intelligence policy
Project on Government Secrecy via Federation of American Scientists
Includes declassified documents and reports. See also section on Intelligence.
Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact via Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research at the ETH Zurich
A large-scale declassification of military materials from the Communist era in Central and East European archives. It has collected thousands of documents on the security aspects of the Cold War.

Presidential Libraries

The documents made available through the Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS) are filmed from the holdings of Presidential Libraries. However, not all the documents held at the Libraries have been scanned for inclusion in DDRS.

The Presidential Library system is made up of ten Presidential Libraries which are part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). These are repositories for preserving and making available the papers, records, and other historical materials of U.S. Presidents. While Presidents who have held office more recently often have more information available on their web sites, some of the Presidential Libraries have scanned in documents (e.g. the Eisenhower Library documents on the U-2 Spy Plane Incident).

Each of the webpages provides finding aids and material on the Presidents. The "About the Presidential Libraries System" provides background on the scope of the collections, and how these libraries came into being.