Documents such as agency records, manuals, correspondence, email correspondence, electronic records, maps, videos, etc., are often classified because of national security reasons, privacy concerns, or other content such as trade secrets or privileged financial and/or commercial information. These documents have content that is considered “sensitive in nature.” Congressional laws or presidential direction establish the parameters for classifying types of documents as “confidential,” ”secret,” or “top secret.” Only individuals with appropriate security clearance can access and/or use classified documents. In 1995, Executive Order 12958 provided “a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information.” The order required automatic declassification of most of the older documents after 25 years and new documents after 10 years.
In 2003, the Bush Executive Order 13292 on Classified National Security Information amended Executive Order 12958 and made it more difficult for classified documents to become declassified. Most recently, President Obama established a rule of thumb for access that presumes openness. In a 21 January 2009 memorandum, he states that, “In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” For an overview of the new comprehensive guidelines governing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and some of the implications of Obama’s FOIA Memorandum, see the 20 March 2009 FOIA Post.
Even when a document is declassified after a formal review process, it isn’t necessarily readily available. A “released” document may not be distributed to libraries in the Federal Depository Library Program. There are also bureaucratic impediments to access. Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project of Government Secrecy, notes that it is increasingly difficult to access unrestricted documents, because “… there are more than 60 different restrictions on unclassified information that have been used. It's not simply that it impedes access by the press to information, but it also ties the government up in knots, because if one agency has information that it says is ‘For Official Use Only,’ but another agency has information that it says is for ‘Limited Official Use,’ can they exchange information and expect that their information will receive the same level of security that it does in their own [agency].” See complete interview. Additionally, some released document images may be of poor quality. Other documents may be partially redacted – which may limit access to declassified content. Finally, a “leaked” document is not a declassified document but, rather, one that has been unofficially and perhaps illegally released.