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Statement on Establishing a New System for Classification and Declassification of Government Documents Relating to National Security.

March 08, 1972

I HAVE today signed an Executive order [11652] establishing a new, more progressive system for classification and declassification of Government documents relating to national security. This reform springs from a review that I initiated almost 14 months ago and represents the first major overhaul of our classification procedures since 1953.

By a separate action, I have also directed the Secretary of State to accelerate publication of the official documentary series, "Foreign Relations of the United States," so that historians and others will have more rapid access to papers created after World War II.

Both of these actions are designed to lift the veil of secrecy which now enshrouds altogether too many papers written by employees of the Federal establishment and to do so without jeopardizing any of our legitimate defense or foreign policy interests.


Unfortunately, the system of classification which has evolved in the United States has failed to meet the standards of an open and democratic society, allowing too many papers to be classified for too long a time. The controls which have been imposed on classification authority have proved unworkable, and classification has frequently served to conceal bureaucratic mistakes or to prevent embarrassment to officials and administrations.

Once locked away in Government files, these papers have accumulated in enormous quantities and have become hidden from public exposure for years, for decades--even for generations. It is estimated that the National Archives now has 160 million pages of classified documents from World War II and over 300 million pages of classified documents for the years 1946 through 1954.

The many abuses of the security system can no longer be tolerated. Fundamental to our way of life is the belief that when information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and---eventually-incapable of determining their own destinies.

Yet since the early days of the Republic, Americans have also recognized that the Federal Government is obliged to protect certain information which might otherwise jeopardize the security of the country. That need has become particularly acute in recent years as the United States has assumed a powerful position in world affairs, and as world peace has come to depend in large part on how that position is safeguarded. We are also moving into an era of delicate negotiations in which it will be especially important that governments be able to communicate in confidence.

Clearly, the two principles of an informed public and of confidentiality within the Government are irreconcilable in their purest forms, and a balance must be struck between them.


In order to strike that balance in favor of more complete public disclosure and in keeping with my pledge to create an open Administration, I directed on January 15, 1971, that a review be made of security classification procedures now in effect. An interagency committee was set up to study the existing system, to make recommendations with respect to its operation, and to propose steps that might be taken to provide speedier declassification. I later directed that the scope of the review be expanded to cover all aspects of information security.

The Executive order I have signed today is based upon the results of this study, as well as on our own operational experiences under current rules, on findings of similar studies in the past growing out of Congressional hearings, and on a reexamination of the rationale underlying the Freedom of Information Act.


We cannot be assured of complete success in this endeavor. In such a complex field, rules can never be airtight and we must rely upon the good judgment of individuals throughout the Government. Yet I believe that our new approach does provide a basis for considerable optimism. The full force of my office has been committed to this endeavor. The rules have been tightened with great care. In addition, in a critically important shift, we have reversed the burden of proof: For the first time, we are placing that burden-and even the threat of administrative sanction--upon those who wish to preserve the secrecy of documents, rather than upon those who wish to declassify them after a reasonable time.

The new system will become effective on June I, 1972. Among its most significant features are these:

--The rules for classifying documents are more restrictive.

--The number of departments and people who can originally classify information has been substantially reduced.

--Timetables ranging from 6 to 10 years have been set for the automatic declassification of documents. Exceptions will be allowed only for such information as falls within four specifically defined categories.

--Any document exempted from automatic declassification will be subject to mandatory review after a 10-year period. Thus, for the first time, a private citizen is given a clear right to have national security information reviewed on the basis of specified criteria to determine if continued classification is warranted, so long as the document can be adequately identified and obtained by the Government with a reasonable amount of effort.

--If information is still classified 30 years after origination, it will then be automatically declassified unless the head of the originating department determines in writing that its continued protection is still necessary and he sets a time for declassification.

--Sanctions may be imposed upon those who abuse the system.

--And a continuing monitoring process will be set up under the National Security Council and an Interagency Classification Review Committee, whose Chairman is to be appointed by the President.

These rules are explained in greater detail below.


1. Tighter Rules for Classification.

Under the new order, materials can be classified Top Secret, Secret, or Confidential only if their unauthorized disclosure "could reasonably be expected" to cause, respectively, exceptionally grave damage, serious damage, or damage to the national security. Heretofore, material could be classified if the originator had any expectation of such damage however remote. This new test is intended to reduce the amount of protected information. In addition, the order explicitly directs that the "Top Secret" stamp must be used with "utmost restraint" while "Secret" shall be used "sparingly."

2. Reduction in Classification Authority.

The new order also substantially reduces the number of agencies in the Government authorized to classify information and material. Under current rules, 24 Federal departments and agencies outside the Executive office of the President have broad classification authority, while several others have more restricted powers. Under the new system, only 12 departments and agencies and such offices in the Executive office as the President may designate will have authority to originally classify information "Top Secret" and 13 others will have authority to stamp materials "Secret" and "Confidential."

In the principal departments concerned with national security, namely State, Defense, and the CIA, the number of individuals who may be authorized to classify material "Top Secret" is also drastically reduced from 5,100 to approximately 1,860. This authority may be exercised only by the heads of the departments and agencies and certain high officials within their organizations whom the heads must designate in writing. Reductions in classification authority are also being made at the "Secret" and "Confidential" levels.

It is anticipated that by reducing the number of agencies with classification powers as well as the number of people within those agencies who have personal classification authority, we can sharply reduce the quantity of material which enters the Government's classified files.

3. Precise Identification of Classified Information.

A major source of unnecessary classification under the old Executive order was the practical impossibility of discerning which portions of a classified document actually required classification. Incorporation of any material from a classified paper into another document usually resulted in the classification of the new document, and innocuous portions of neither paper could be released.

To the extent practicable, each classified document under the new system will be marked to show which portions are classified, at what level, and which portions are unclassified.

4. Rules for Declassifying Documents.

Perhaps the most innovative and crucial aspect of the Executive order I have signed today is the procedure it establishes for the downgrading and declassification of documents. Aside from a small mount of documents which are subject to declassification after a 12-year period as specified by existing regulations, the vast majority of documents classified since World War II have never been given a rigorous declassification review and they remain classified to this day. I believe we can cure these ills under the new order.

A. Documents Classified After May 31, 1972

Unless specifically exempted, all documents classified after May 31, 1972, are to be automatically downgraded and declassified. "Top Secret" information is to be downgraded to "Secret" after 2 years, to "Confidential" after 2 more years, and declassified after a total of 10 years. "Secret" information is to be downgraded to "Confidential" after 2 years and declassified after a total of 8 years. "Confidential" documents are to be declassified after 6 years.

Information may be exempted from the automatic process only by an official with "Top Secret" classification authority and that official must specify in writing in which of four specific exemption categories the material falls and, where possible, he must also indicate when declassification will in fact occur. The four exemption categories are:

--Classified information furnished in confidence by a foreign government or international organization;

--Classified information covered by statute, or pertaining to cryptography, or disclosing intelligence sources or methods;

--Classified information disclosing a system, plan, installation, project or specific foreign relations matter the continued protection of which is essential to the national security;

--Classified information which, if disclosed, "would place a person in immediate jeopardy." The jeopardy intended here is physical harm, not personal embarrassment or discomfiture.

Upon request from anyone, including a member of the general public, exempted material is subject to mandatory review by the originating Department after 10 years from the date of origin so long as (a) the request describes the record with sufficient particularity that it may be identified, and (b) the record can be obtained with a reasonable amount of effort.

If material is still classified 30 years after the date of its original classification, it shall then be automatically declassified. Classification may be further extended only if the head of the originating Department personally determines in writing that its continued protection is essential to national security or that its disclosure would place a person in immediate jeopardy. In these instances--and I am encouraged to believe that they will be limited in number--the Department head must also specify the period of continued classification.

B. Documents Classified Before June 1,1972

Essentially these same standards will be applied to materials classified prior to the effective date of this order, but in view of their vast quantity, the 6-10 year rule for automatic declassification can only be applied to those documents already subject to a 12-year declassification under current procedures. All others will be subject to the mandatory review process at any time after 10 years from the date of origin, provided the particularity and reasonable effort tests are met. After 30 years all remaining classified information shall be systematically reviewed for declassification by the Archivist of the United States. The Archivist shall continue the protection of this material after the 30-year deadline only if the head of the originating Department so specifies in writing under conditions noted above.

This new responsibility for the Archivist is tailored to fit with Administration plans for an immediate and systematic declassification of World War II documents. On August 3, 1971, I asked the Congress for a supplemental appropriation of $636,000 so that we could begin this project under the direction of the National Archives and Records Service of the General Services Administration. The Congress has not yet responded to this request, but I am hopeful of action this year.

5. Sanctions Against Over-Classification.

Unlike the current system, in which officials find it in their own best interest to classify all materials of a questionable nature, I am hopeful that the new Executive order will encourage them to exercise their authority with restraint. The order explicitly states that information shall never be classified "in order to conceal inefficiency or administrative error . . .or to prevent for any other reason the release of information which does not require protection in the interest of national security." More than that, each agency is to provide a means of identifying the classifying authority for each document and each official is to be held personally responsible for the propriety of the classifications attributed to him. Repeated abuse of the process through excessive classification shall be grounds for administrative action.

6. Monitoring the New System.

Of critical importance to the effectiveness of my Executive order will be the new administrative machinery designed to ensure that its provisions are not allowed to become mere meaningless exhortations. The National Security Council will monitor compliance with the Executive order. In addition, the order creates a small Interagency Classification Review Committee with extensive powers to oversee agency implementation of the new system, and to take action on complaints both from within and from outside the Government on the administration of the order.



My second action today was to direct an acceleration in the publication by the Department of State of the official documentary series, "Foreign Relations of the United States." Since 1861, that series has been an invaluable resource for historians and others interested in our past. For many years each publication contained documents written only a few years before, but soon after the Second World War, when Government files were bulging with war papers, a 20-year lag developed between origination and publication. Now, however, the lag has stretched to 26 years and the Department of State is presently publishing materials relating to events of 1946. This delay is too long, and I have directed the Secretary of State to institute immediately a program to reduce this time lag to 20 years, and to accomplish this mission within 3 years. I have also instructed the Secretary of Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence, and my Assistant for National Security Affairs to cooperate fully with this effort.

Note: On the same day, the White House released the transcript of a news briefing on the new classification and declassification system by John D. Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, and David R. Young, Executive Director, Interagency Classification Review Committee.

On August 3, 1972, the White House released an announcement of a report by John S. D. Eisenhower, Chairman, Interagency Classification Review Committee, on progress made in the new classification and declassification system. A fact sheet and chart on the progress in carrying out the provisions of Executive Order 11652 were also released. The announcement is printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 8, p. 1199).

Richard Nixon, Statement on Establishing a New System for Classification and Declassification of Government Documents Relating to National Security. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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