Government Documents Guide

Declassified Intelligence Documents

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.



To be thorough, one must check all of these sources. See annotations below for further explanation.


Digital National Security Archive (MU only)

MU Libraries subscribes to the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA), a database from ProQuest created in partnership with the National Security Archive. The database contains over 80,000 declassified documents deemed to be significant, especially in relation to U.S. policy. Among the documents included are “presidential directives, memos, diplomatic dispatches, meeting notes, independent reports, briefing papers, White House communications, email, confidential letters and other secret communication.” Currently organized into 31 different collections, the DNSA database focuses on documents that pertain to U.S. foreign policy, security, and intelligence matters in the years following World War II. The DNSA also provides users with reference supplements including a bibliography, glossary, introductory essays, etc.

National Security Archive at George Washington University (Free web-based resource)

An independent non-governmental research institute and library, the National Security Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), The Archive also serves as a repository of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to the national security, foreign intelligence, and economic policies of the United States. Staff members systematically track U.S. government agencies and federal records repositories for documents that either have never been released before or help to shed light on the decision-making process of the U.S. government and provide the historical context underlying those decisions.

Foreign Relations of the United States (title varies slightly over time)

This is the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy. Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) includes a wide variety of primary source material, including declassified documents that have been reviewed (and sometimes edited) for publication. Recent volumes available online in the FRUS series include transcripts of Presidential tape recording and, significantly, documents from a wider range of government agencies including those involved in covert and intelligence activities. Series volumes in print in Ellis Library under the call number JX 233 .A3 (located in 2 East) and older volumes available online are published approximately thirty years after the period covered.

Federal Agency Reading Rooms

In addition to checking the databases listed above, is prudent to check agency reading rooms before resorting to an FOIA request. The FOIA requires that physical and electronic reading rooms be made available for the public for inspecting and/or copying information from documents that have already been released in response to previous FOIA requests. (For more information about electronic reading rooms, see article from Other reading room materials include administrative staff manuals and documents that indicate an agency’s position regarding legal issues and policy questions. See more about document content in agency reading rooms. As is often true, some documents will be restricted for reasons of personal privacy, national security, protection of trade secrets, etc. The University of Virginia Library has a nice listing organized by agency which includes links to FOIA reading rooms.

Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS):

In 1972, a massive number of government documents were declassified and released. In response, the Declassified Documents Reference System was created and originally published in print as the Declassified Documents Quarterly Catalog. Entries in the catalog include a title or summary line, source agency, type of document, pagination, publication, security classification, “sanitized copy status,” and declassification date (see the “User’s Guide” in the front of each quarterly catalog for more information). A microfiche series accompanied the quarterly catalog. In 1997, print publication ceased and content was made available digitally through an online subscription service from Gale Publishers. MU Libraries does not subscribe to this Gale product. The microfiche series at MU Libraries contains declassified content from1945 to 2004. The majority of declassified documents are from the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department, and the Department of Defense. Other documents in the DDRS were generated by the National Security Council, White House, FBI, etc. Users accessing the contents of the DDRS will find correspondence, background studies, situation reports, meeting minutes, telegrams, national intelligence estimates, and unevaluated field reports.

The DDRS does not include documents automatically declassified in bulk, nor does it cover documents given wide public dissemination or those deemed to be of marginal interest. The DDRS was produced by a series of different publishers and, consequently, the arrangement of microfiche is extremely confusing. To make matters more complicated, after publication of the DDRS print volumes ceased and the DDRS materials became available through the subscription-only database, the publisher continued to issue microfiche. The quality of both the microfiche and digital content varies greatly. Some of the online material is redundant and searching the subscription-based online index can be a sticky wicket. Finally, because of changes in publishers and formats, users with access to the Gale data base should look in the print index (pre-1982) and online as well.

Other library websites with additional information:


How to Acquire Materials through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

To acquire declassified documents not yet available through the avenues listed above, individuals and organizations may utilize the Freedom of Information Act. Passed in 1966, and amended greatly in the years immediately following Watergate, the FOIA :

  1. Established the right to know about the activities of the Executive branch
  2. Provided any person with access to identifiable, existing records of departments and agencies without having to demonstrate need or reason
  3. Allowed for disputes over the availability of such records to be settled in court
  4. Created exemptions to access based upon national defense, foreign policy issues, and privacy concerns.

In order to acquire information under the FOIA, the requester must do the following:

  1. Identify the agency that may have records
  2. Provide a description of the document(s) sought,
  3. Send a letter in an envelope marked “FOIA Request” with contact information including email address and/or phone number. Requests may also be sent by email.

Some agencies require a signed statement or notarized statement attesting that the requester is who s/he claims. It is often helpful to refer to a department or agency’s web site for additional information regarding FOIA requests. Agencies may charge fees for duplicating, searching, and review (these fees can be waived for those unwilling and/or unable to pay fees).

By submitting an FOIA request, one makes a tacit acceptance of willingness to pay minor fees associated with the FOIA request. It is the responsibility of requesters to ask for a partial or full fee waiver. Requesters should also indicate if they are willing to pay additional fees for time spent search for documents and photocopying.

To gain access to declassified documents, the user is advised to know all of the following:

  1. What agency generated the documents as the request process is expedited if one knows the specific office, bureau, or “component”
  2. When the documents were created
  3. Who researched, wrote, contributed, etc. to the documents
  4. Where the documents might be now (for example, in the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Archives, a presidential library, etc.)

There are times in research when an individual or organization wants to research a specific event, foreign policy issue, or some historical aspect of international relations. In the case of discovery research, the patron may not know exactly what s/he is seeking. The process of obtaining declassified documents may require “bulldog tenacity.” Individuals and organizations are encouraged to start the search early and be persistent. For further information, see the FOIA website and the Department of Justice’s electronic resource, the FOIA Post.

Patrons at the University of Missouri are encouraged to contact the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Freedom of Information Center for assistance with FOIA requests and agency compliance.

For further assistance, contact: