NARA and Declassification

Exemptions from Automatic Declassification


E.O. 13526 prescribes a "uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information." The Order declares that the democratic principles of our nation require that the American people be informed of the activities of their Government while it simultaneously acknowledges that "the national interest has required that certain information be maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, and our participation within the community of nations." Based on these principals, Executive Order 13526, "Classified National Security Information" requires the automatic declassification of records of permanent historical value that are more than 25 years old, The Order also recognizes that some information might remain sensitive and pose a threat to the national security if released at the 25-year mark such as information which reveals the identity of a confidential human source, human intelligence source, or key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction, which may have a duration up to 75 years. Therefore, the Order allows agency heads to identify this information and provides for its further protection.


Section 3.3(a) of E.O. 13526, mandates the automatic declassification of records of permanent historical value under Title 44, United States Code, that are more than 25-years old. However, section 3.3(b) allows an agency head to exempt from automatic declassification, specific information, which if released would be expected to damage the national security of the United States for any of the nine reasons provided for in the section. Section 3.3(D) (4) requires agency heads to notify the Director of ISOO, serving as the Executive Secretary of the ISCAP, that the agency proposes to exempt certain information from automatic declassification. The Implementing Directive for 13526, (provides that "approved classification guides may be used as a tool to assist in the exemption from automatic declassification of specific information as provided in section 3.3 of the Order." (§2001.15). Exemptions from automatic declassification are intended for records that, during their review by the agency, have been determined to require further classification beyond the 25-year mark. Exemptions from automatic declassification are not valid until approved by the ISCAP. Lack of such approval results in the automatic declassification of the records.

Agency Level Process for Exemptions from Automatic Declassification

The information that the agency wishes to exempt must be narrowly defined, stated clearly, and in detail. A guide must provide sufficient detail to permit a reviewer to understand easily what specific information is exempted from automatic declassification. It must identify the subject matter, the original declassification authority, and the date of issuance or last review. It must precisely state the elements or categories of information to be declassified, to be downgraded, or not to be declassified. It must cite a clear relationship to specific exemptions in section 3.3(b) and, if necessary, explain how the information fits in the category or categories cited. It must provide a reasonable explanation or justification for the exemption. If exemption category 3.3(b) (9) is cited, the statute, treaty, or international agreement must be specified. The guide must also include a fixed date for future declassification. If necessary, guides may be classified at the applicable level per the provisions of the Order.

ISCAP Approval of Exemptions from Automatic Declassification:

The agency submits its completed guide to the Director of ISOO, who serves as the Executive Secretary of the ISCAP, for approval. The guide must be submitted at least one year before the information is scheduled to be automatically declassified under section 3.3. The ISCAP staff reviews the guide and works with the agency to ensure that the guide meets the requirements outlined above before submitting the guide to the ISCAP for formal approval. When an understanding is reached that the guide meets those standards or that the agency will amend the guide no further, the guide is submitted to the ISCAP liaisons for review and then to the members for approval. The ISCAP may approve the guide or ask the agency to modify it. Once the ISCAP makes a determination, the Executive Secretary notifies the agency in writing of the ISCAP decision.

Revision of Declassification Guides:

Agencies are required to review and update declassification guides as needed and at least once every five years. Agencies interested in information regarding revising currently approved declassification guides should contact any member of the ISCAP staff.

File Series Exemptions:

  • A delay from automatic declassification at 25 years, not an exemption from declassification
  • For file series where the information "almost invariably" falls within one or more of the exemption categories in Section 3.3(b)

    Section 3.3(c)(1) of Executive Order 13526, "Classified National Security Information" provides that an agency head shall notify the Panel of any specific file series of records for which a review or assessment has determined that the information within that file series almost invariably falls within one or more of the exemption categories listed in paragraph (b) of this section and that the agency proposes to exempt from automatic declassification at 25 years.


(2) The notification for a proposed file series exemption to the ISCAP shall include:

(A) A description of the file series;

  • Must be as full and specific as possible and provide a narrative of the entire series, not just the exemptible material.
  • Must identify the date span of the file series and provide an estimate of the volume in cubic feet.

(B) An explanation of why the information within the file series is almost invariably exempt from automatic declassification and why the information must remain classified for a longer period of time; and

  • Additionally, agencies must explain the process utilized to arrive at a conclusion that the information in the series is "almost invariably exempt."

(C) Except when the information within the file series almost invariably identifies a confidential human source or a human intelligence source or key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction, agencies must specify a clear and reasonable date or event for declassification of the information, not to exceed December 31 of the year that is 50 years from the date of origin of the records.


File series exemptions approved by the President prior to December 31, 2008, shall remain valid without any additional agency action pending Panel review by the later of December 31, 2010, or December 31 of the year that is ten years from the date of previous approval. Approval of file series exemptions is now executed by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.