In the interest of national security, some U.S. Government information is classified and requires protection against unauthorized disclosure. Government agencies may classify information only as permitted by Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information. Declassification means an authorized change in the status of information from classified information to unclassified information.
Documents may be classified only as long as is absolutely necessary to protect national security, and agencies must make every effort to declassify documents as soon as possible. Declassification does not necessarily lead to immediate public release because some documents may still be withheld from release by virtue of exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information Act or when other public laws prevent release.
Methods of Declassification
There are three primary ways by which classified information is declassified:
- Systematic Review
- Mandatory Review
- Automatic Declassification
Executive Order 13526 has established a system to declassify information in permanently valuable records when the records reach a certain age that was set when the information was originally classified or when a specific event occurs. The Federal Records Management Act defines permanently valuable records, and records management officials at DOT are responsible for identifying those records. Generally, permanently valuable records are classified for no longer than 25 years and many are declassified sooner. Only information meeting very specific criteria may be classified for periods of time longer than 25 years.
Systematic Declassification Review
Systematic declassification means the review for declassification of classified information contained in permanently valuable records. DOT organizations periodically review classified documents contained in these records for possible declassification.
Mandatory Declassification Review
E.O. 13526 requires DOT to review for declassification classified documents or other classified material (for example, electronic files) whenever there is a specific request for it that is sufficiently specific to enable the department to locate it with a reasonable amount of effort. This type of review is a mandatory declassification review.
When DOT receives a request for information that is classified, it first determines whether DOT originally classified the information or whether another agency classified it. If DOT classified it, then an office with authority over the information reviews it to determine whether or not the information may be declassified. Unless there is a continuing need to keep the information classified, DOT will then declassify it. E.O. 13526 requires DOT to respond to any declassification request in a timely manner.
Historically, however, DOT receives most of its classified information from other agencies. DOT has classified only a very small number of documents in recent years. If DOT receives a request for information that another agency has classified, it refers the request to that other agency. DOT will also notify the requester about the referral.
For more information about declassification in general, please refer to Executive Order 13526.
Although DOT does not have a centralized repository for declassified materials, individuals who want access to specific materials that they believe DOT may have declassified should contact the Office of Security. In addition, individuals should contact this office to request that specific types of DOT-classified information be given priority for declassification.