Classified Records: National Security, Declassification, and the Freedom of Information Act

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David Fort

Today’s post is provided by NDC staff member David Fort.

I had the privilege of speaking to a crowd of about 35 people February 6, 2019 at Gettysburg College.  The talk involved a number of topics from how the declassification process works at the National Archives, from the records being accessioned, to them being reviewed and subsequently being declassified and released to the public, to how the classified FOIA office operates at the National Archives.  The talk then moved to a discussion of the FOIA process for classified records at the National Archives and the challenges with which FOIA professionals have to deal when discussing classified records and there declassification. The talk ended with a discussion pertaining to upcoming challenges to both historians and FOIA professionals when it comes to the large amount of electronic records researchers and agencies will have to review. As a finale, I concluded the talk by showing some examples of recently declassified documents.

 

The chart below was used to further explain some of the processes used by the NDC to asses and review record accessioned into the National Archives.

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The talk then moved from the discussion of the larger National Declassification Center releasing large volumes of records to those smaller requests typically handled by my office under FOIA.  One of the unique aspects of FOIA in the United States is the ability for people from all over the world to request under FOIA records held by the National Archives.  This truly allows for openness of government records to those who wish to learn more that they might not be able to do in their home country.  The discussion then morphed into some of the unique challenges our FOIA office has to handle.  The two main challenges our office faces are first, the fact that we do not have declassification authority, so that we are very dependent upon other agencies in processing the FOIA requests in a timely manner and providing us with instructions on how to handle the document.  Our second challenge is the habit agency reviewers maintain in looking at a historical document through the lens of today’s national security environment, which leads to unnecessary retention of national security classifications.  The discussion then transitioned into a discussions about the 9 FOIA exemption categories and those 9 exemptions under B1.

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After discussing the various reasons under the FOIA B1 why information could be protected, I then briefly discussed some B3 statutes we typically encounter and why they if applied correctly are important.

I next discussed exemptions 6 and 7 and how they overlapped in some of the privacy protections they were allowed to use.  The main difference between the two exemptions, is that only law enforcement agencies are allowed to use a B7 exemption, especially when one gets into discussions of personal privacy

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Exemption 6: Information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.

Exemption 7: Information compiled for law enforcement purposes.

 

The last part of the talk focused on some interesting documents that have been declassified recently.  I spent a lot of time going through World War 2 records searching for documents pertaining to General Eisenhower due to his connection to the Eisenhower Institute and was able to locate a previously classified document pertaining to Psychological warfare in Operation Overlord.  Below, is a copy of one of the documents I declassified while working on this series.

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SHAEF Directive for Psycological Warfare in Operation OVERLORD 23 April 1944

In the course of reviewing this record series I came upon an item not seen often (thankfully) in paper records: an incendiary device:

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This discovery resulted in a phone call to the Prince George’s County Police Department, who promptly recovered the device and safely detonated it.

Just another exciting day in the Archives!