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Georgetown Law Library

National Security Law Research Guide

This guide covers U.S. military, espionage, homeland security, and classification/declassification law.

Classification & Declassification of Government Documents

  1. Introduction.
    For the most part, individual federal agencies decide whether to classify or declassify information they create. They do so on the basis of Executive Order 12958, 60 Fed. Reg. 19,825 (as amended by Exec. Order 13292, 3 C.F.R. 197 (2004)) and guidance issued by the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration (ISOO). Appeals of classification decisions are decided by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.
  2. Information Security Oversight Office [].
    In addition to issuing guidance to other agencies on classification matters, the ISOO also gathers and analyzes statistics on other agencies' classification programs, and provides program and administrative support for the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (see VIII.c., below).
    1. The primary bases of the ISOO's authority are the following statutes and executive orders:
      1. 50 U.S.C. §§ 435-438 provide the procedural outlines for the classification of information and the safeguarding of classified information.
      2. Executive Order 12958, 60 Fed. Reg. 19,825 (as amended by Exec. Order 13292, 3 C.F.R. 197 (2004)),, prescribes a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information. It also establishes a monitoring system to enhance its effectiveness.
      3. Executive Order 12829, 3 C.F.R. 570 (1993) "National Industrial Security Program" (as amended by Executive Order 12885, 3 C.F.R. 684 (1993)),, establishes a National Industrial Security Program to safeguard Federal Government classified information that is released to contractors, licensees, and grantees of the United States Government.
    2. ISOO regulations (including classification, declassification, and safeguarding guidelines) appear in 32 C.F.R. pt. 2001.
    3. ISOO Annual Reports to the President are available at These reports analyze statistical data regarding each federal agency's security classification program.
  3. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel[] decides appeals by authorized holders of classified information who have filed classification challenges under § 1.8 of Executive Order 12958. It also approves, denies, or amends agency exemptions from automatic declassification (§ 3.3), and decides mandatory declassification review appeals by parties whose requests for declassification under § 3.5 have been denied at the agency level.
  4. Statutes Related to Classified Information.
    1. 50 U.S.C. §§ 435-438 provide the procedural outlines for the classification of information and the safeguarding of classified information.
    2. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2161-2169 prescribe procedures for the classification and safeguarding of information related to nuclear weapons and atomic energy.
    3. 50 U.S.C. § 783 makes it unlawful for any government officer or employee to communicate classified information to an agent of a foreign government.
    4. 18 U.S.C. § 798 makes it a crime to communicate classified information to an unauthorized person.
    5. Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA), P.L. 89-554, 80 Stat. 383, codified as amended at 5 U.S.C. § 552. Permits nondisclosure of government information that is "(A) specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and (B) are in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive order." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1).
  5. Declassified Documents Databases.
    1. Declassified Documents Reference System - U.S. (only). Full text searchable access to a selection of over 70,000 previously classified U.S. government documents. Post World War II documents include correspondence and memoranda, minutes of cabinet meetings, technical studies, national security policy statements, and intelligence reports.
    2. Digital National Security Archive (only). Contains more than 35,000 declassified primary documents that led to policy decisions. Covers such areas as Afghanistan, Berlin Crisis 1958-1962, Cuban Missile Crisis, El Salvador, Iran-Contra Affair, etc.