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Find out more about National Sunshine Week

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3.17.06
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Freedom of Information Act Classifications

There are nine exemptions (outlined in section (b) of the FOIA) that protect certain records from disclosure. The first of these specifies that "classified" documents don't have to be turned over in the event of a citizen request. But how does a document get "classified" and once it does, does the public have any hope of ever seeing it?

Below, learn about some of the main regulations governing classified documents and some interesting statistics about how the process is commonly used. (Learn more about the history of the Freedom of Information Act.)

Classified information is officially secret information to which only authorized people have access. In the United States, there are three levels of sensitivity, with differing clearance requirements for each. Established under Executive Order 13292, they are Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

The purpose of classification is to protect information from being used to endanger national security. As the Wikipedia entry for "classified information" puts it, "classification formalizes what constitutes a 'state secret' and accords different levels of protection based on the expected damage the information might cause in the wrong hands."

In 2004, information was classified 15.6 million times. Each choice to classify a document costs $460, bringing the grand total for the year to $7.2 billion. The same year, 28 million secrets were declassified. That is a 72% decrease since September 11, 2001.

In February 2006, THE NEW YORK TIMES exposed a secret program that has been going on at the National Archives since 1999 - the reclassification of more than 55,000 previously declassified pages. Many historians are concerned about the process, fearing that it might place many harmless documents of historic value off limits, but government officials argue that some of the information was recklessly and wrongly declassified in the first place.

The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) watches over the security classification programs in both Government and industry and reports to the President annually on their status. In its 2004 report, ISOO states that:

Classification can be a double-edged sword…. Simply put, secrecy at a price. For classification to work, agency officials must become more successful in factoring this reality into the overall risk equation when making classification decisions.

The decision to classify information begins with an Original Classification Authority (OCA) - an individual designated in writing, either by the President or by selected agency heads, to exercise this power. There are approximately 4,000 OCAs, but their decisions are critical, since the choice to classify information can have a ripple effect down the line.

Derivative classifiers make 92% of all classification decisions. They do this when they extract or paraphrase information in already classified materials or use their own interpretation of what they believe requires classification.

When a document is classified, it is carefully marked with standardized labels to warn readers of the degree of protection required. The Department of Defense hosts on its site a detailed guide to marking classified documents.

Each classified document must list the source and reason for classification, and instructions for declassification, which may occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes information loses sensitivity over time or as circumstances change. Another reason for downgrading information is automatic declassification, by which information with historical value is automatically declassified at 25 years after classification.

What about pseudo-classification? By one count there are now at least 50 types of designations the government now uses to restrict unclassified information, such as "Sensitive but Unclassified" or "For Official Use Only." Critics argue that this is a growing method used to keep documents secret.

In 2004, the public made over 4 million requests for information from government agencies - a 25% increase from 2003. 84% of the agencies were unable to keep up.

Explore more of NOW's special Sunshine Week coverage


Sources: OpenTheGovernment.org; Information Security Ovesight Office, National Security Archive

"The Sunshine Gang" was made possible in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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