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Millions of Records Declassified

FBI Records
An Historic Declassification


Box of records

Imagine a library filled with a million books, each 270 pages long.

That’s how many historic FBI pages we declassified on December 31, in line with an executive order that now applies to the Bureau.

“It’s unprecedented,” says David Hardy, chief of the Record/Information Dissemination Section in our Records Management Division. “To historians and researchers interested in the FBI, it may be remembered as the ‘Great Declassification of ‘06.’”

The 270 million pages of records cover a span of time stretching from the 1920s until 1981 and just about every kind of FBI investigation, including sensitive cases involving domestic security and more routine ones like organized crime and kidnappings.

“Not all of it is going to be flattering for the FBI,” says Hardy, “but we think it’s important to make this information available to the American people.”

That won’t happen overnight. “Just because the files are officially declassified doesn’t mean they are automatically ready for public review. We have a lot of work to do before that happens,” explains Hardy.

Such as: Scouring for—and then redacting—information that would compromise personal privacy or would expose a government informant, identify a sensitive technique, or violate a treaty or agreement with another country.

The executive order requires that we automatically declassify files every December 31 that have been closed for at least 25 years and that have “permanent historical value.” The order, however, is allowing the FBI to postpone automatic declassification of our core counterintelligence, international terrorism, and security records until a later date. Everything else is subject to automatic declassification.

“Not every page had classified information on it,” Hardy points out. “However, classified material was contained throughout the records.”

Where to begin. Experts at the National Archives are helping us determine which files to get ready for release first. “They know what the general population—historians, researchers, authors, etc.—is most interested in at the moment,” says Hardy.

Right now, at their suggestion, we’re working on files involving domestic security, including investigations of Americans with suspected ties to the Community Party. Once cleared, the files will be delivered to the National Archives.

And how can you access them? Make a request to the National Archives or to us through our Freedom of Information Act website.

Managing our records. Hardy says the FBI employs what amounts to a “small army of experts, several-hundred strong,” to handle requests for our files. Their mission: to know the ins and outs of the myriad laws governing the release of FBI information and to scrub our files with meticulous care so that nothing goes out that shouldn’t, while at the same time providing as much information to the public as possible.

Other recent releases of records have involved notable personalities like Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and a ream of documents based on our observations of the treatment of foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“Even for an agency like the FBI, with all its sensitive cases and secret intelligence work, opening our records to the nation is part and parcel of doing business in a democracy,” Hardy says.

Resources: FBI Freedom of Information Act website