Trapped in the Archives – By William Burr November 29, 2019

The U.S. Government’s System for Declassifying Historical Documents Is in Crisis

A classified document in the Oval O​ffice of the White House, November 2007
Christopher Morris / VII / Red​ux

Did the United States have a hand in assassinating Congolese and Dominican leaders in 1961? What did President Richard Nixon’s White House know about a successful plot to kill the head of the Chilean army in 1970? After the Cold War ended, did top U.S. military commanders retain the authority to strike back if a surprise nuclear attack put the president out of commission?

The answers to these and other historical mysteries are likely knowable—but they are locked in presidential libraries and government archives and inaccessible to researchers. The reason: the U.S. government’s system for declassifying and processing historical records has reached a state of crisis. Congress has failed to adequately fund the parts of the government charged with processing records, resulting in understaffed offices and years-long backlogs. At the same time, some agencies responsible for declassifying documents have deliberately dragged their feet and erred on the side of needless secrecy.

Declassification is vital to a thriving democracy. Not only does it help the public hold leaders accountable; it also allows for a more accurate and comprehensive accounting of the past.

Without declassification, the American hand in the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 would have remained hidden, and Americans would have no way of understanding their country’s Third World meddling. The exposure, through declassification, of the CIA’s assassination plotting in the late 1950s and early 1960s produced public pressure that resulted in executive orders banning political assassinations. Declassified documents brought to light the intelligence failures during 1962 that delayed the detection of Soviet missile deployments in Cuba.

For every secret revealed, however, untold numbers are still hidden away. Only by unsealing its archives can the United States live up to its ideals as an open society and learn from its past.


By law, the classified documents that most federal agencies produce in the course of their work—from State Department cables to Pentagon policy papers to White House e-mails—must be preserved and eventually transferred to the National Archives or the presidential libraries that it runs. Some agencies, such as the CIA, hold on to their records indefinitely.

Whether they are marked confidential, secret, or top secret, classified records remain classified by default; there is no rule requiring declassification after a given number of years. The National Archives does review old records for full or partial declassification, often in response to requests from the public. But the power to declassify a document lies in the hands of the agencies involved in its creation or interested in its contents. All the agencies with a stake in a document must sign off on its declassification—and any one of them, even if it is not the agency where the document originated, can block it.

All the agencies with a stake in a document must sign off on its declassification—and any one of them can block it.

If a request for declassification is denied, the story does not end there. For documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, requesters may file an administrative appeal and ultimately a lawsuit, although few choose to undertake such an expensive and time-consuming process. Since the 1970s, executive orders have provided another avenue, called a “mandatory declassification review” request, through which one can ask for classified records that can be specifically identified. For this type of request, the final resort is to file an appeal with a body composed of representatives from various agencies, called the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

The whole process takes an unconscionably long time. I am still awaiting final decisions from the National Archives for State Department records from 1969 concerning U.S. policy toward the Israeli nuclear program. I initially made the request in 2005. Nine years later, the National Archives responded by informing me that the Defense Department had denied 31 documents in their entirety. My appeal is still pending. Many historians can’t afford to wait: 14 years is far longer than the lifespan of most research projects.


Nearly every federal office through which a declassification request must pass is simply overwhelmed. Agencies handle requests for records that they retain, and few devote many resources to processing them. For records held at the National Archives, requests are coordinated by the National Declassification Center, a small office in a significantly underfunded agency that is reluctant to challenge the rights claimed by other agencies. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, for its part, has been relatively effective in reversing unreasonable decisions made by agencies, but it also has a woefully small staff: just three full-time employees.

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