What's the process through which classified documents are made public for everyone to see, and can some classified documents be destroyed or never made public? I am wondering how the process goes, because I am thinking there might be documents that may jeopardize the country's national security interest even if made public several years after it was made. What's the process like in the United States?

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    can some classified documents be destroyed or never made public are you asking whether this would be legal, or are you asking about opportunities to get rid of classified documents illegally?
    – henning
    Jun 24, 2021 at 11:48
  • There are many types of classified material. Some come up automatically for review, and may end up being declassified as a result. Other types do not have an assigned review date, so declassification is a conscious act on a given document.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 24, 2021 at 19:23
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    We only found out about MKULTRA because the CIA attempted to destroy the documents when Congress demanded them, but failed to destroy them all. So at least in some cases, they are never made public (legally or not).
    – forest
    Jun 25, 2021 at 2:01

2 Answers 2


The National Archives has a nice document describing the declassification review process. Yes, I think it is entirely possible that some documents are never declassified. For example Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information. There are other, less ominous reasons for non-disclosure of government records, for example, personnel records, because personally identifiable information (PII) is protected from disclosure requirements.

A document containing PII isn't necessarily classified, but it is still supposed to be protected against disclosure under the privacy act of 1974. While the president can unilaterally declare something unclassified, he can't ignore the privacy act. So even after declassification, it takes time to redact all the PII.

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    A nice example of PII is people's tax records. PII is a subclass of Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU). Tax records are PII, and hence SBU. Despite being unclassified, it is very, very hard to obtain some other person's tax records from the Internal Revenue Service. And after seven years, they're shredded (literally or electronically). Jun 24, 2021 at 4:11
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    Agreed. PII is also why the topic of Unmasking by politicians is so sensitive. Why, for example Q: why did Joe Biden (as VP) ask to reveal the identity of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. A: politics is a dirty business, and Joe (or his staff) thought they could get away with it. Jun 24, 2021 at 4:17
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    Protecting PII, undercover operatives, etc. are hardly reasons to never declassify or destroy documents. Standard ways to deal with that in other countries are cooling off periods. After somthing like 25+ years after a person's death or 100 years after a document was drafted, if you still want to keep something secret, you are not protecting a person but the country/agency's reputation.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 24, 2021 at 8:38
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    @Relaxed: Even 25+ years after a person's death, there could still be a threat to its descendants. It's still living memory. 100 years would probably be a long enough cool period indeed. Jun 24, 2021 at 15:49
  • The US government's treatment of PII is governed by the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S. Code § 552a - Records maintained on individuals. The PII concept is distinct from the classification system, and there seems to be no provision for a "cooling off" period. Private information is supposed to stay private, even if disclosed to the government. Jul 2, 2021 at 16:54

An interesting example of important classified documents getting lost or destroyed has to do with something codenamed FOGBANK. It seems that FOGBANK was critical to some nuclear weapons designs, and somehow the US forgot how to make FOGBANK.

I'm not sure there was ever a decision to delete the FOGBANK formula, but the information was clearly highly classified and then lost.

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    Surely our British allies could explain FOGBANKs to us.
    – user16416
    Jun 24, 2021 at 12:37
  • @ChrisBouchard I believe it has been successfully reverse engineered since that time.
    – forest
    Jun 25, 2021 at 2:12

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