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Dear Yuqing Wu,
Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!
In short, there is no such general rule in the United States closing government records. However, there is a provision in the Federal Records Act that requires federal agencies to transfer their permanent records to the National Archives no later than thirty years. 44 U.S.C. § 2108.
Also, the National Archives of the United Kingdom had a “thirty-year rule” that kept its records closed until 30 years have passed, similar to the system you describe in China. See: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/legislation/public-records-act/history-of-pra/. Accordingly, it is possible that the Chinese experts were thinking of the United Kingdom, rather than the United States.
In the U.S., there is no standard closure period. Rather, different closure periods apply to records based on the nature and content of the information. For example, most classified national security information remains closed for at least 25 years, and some for as long as 75 years. See: Executive order 13526. Personal privacy information can remain closed for up to 75 years. See NARA’s regulation at 36 CFR 1256.56. Information subject to the deliberative process privilege cannot be withheld for more than 25 years. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5).
In addition, it is important to note that the records of the three branches of the federal government of the United States – the Legislative branch, the Executive branch, and the Judicial branch – are each treated somewhat differently.
The U.S. Congress, which is the legislative branch of the U.S. Government, sets its own rules for access to its records. Some of their records remain closed to the public for 20, 30, or even 50-year periods depending on the type of information at issue. See Rules of Access: https://www.archives.gov/legislative/research/rules-of-access.html
For federal agencies that are part of the Executive branch of the U.S. Government, the retention, management and disposal of records is governed by the Federal Records Act, 44 U.S.C. chapter 31 § 3101 et seq.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, gives the public the right to request access to records from any Executive branch agency subject to the FOIA. This includes the National Archives and Records Administration. However, archival records listed in our catalog as open to researchers do not require a FOIA request. The FOIA does not require agencies to answer questions when responding to requests, create new records, conduct research, or analyze data.
There are nine exemptions from public disclosure under the FOIA statute. One of these exemptions, for example, is for classified national security information. However, a person can request a Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR), in accordance with the procedures described in the Presidential Executive Order (E.O.) 13526, for classified executive branch documents.
Since 1978, Presidential records have been governed by the Presidential Records Act, 44 U.S.C. § 2201, et seq. They are not accessible under the Freedom of Information Act until 5 years after the President completes his term of office. Certain types of records may be inaccessible for 12 years.
Please note that Congress and the Judicial branch of the U.S. Government are not subject to the FOIA statute. However, any person can request federal court case records from the appropriate court clerk, subject to court rules or laws that may restrict access to grand jury, or other confidential or classified information.
The role of the National Archives:
Not only is the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) the repository for documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by agencies of the Executive branch of the United States Federal government, but NARA is also responsible for establishing the records management policies for the federal government. Accordingly, the policies and procedures regarding the retention and disposal of federal records can be found in our governing statute, the Federal Records Act, at 44 U.S.C. Chapters 29, 31, and 33, NARA’s regulations, at 36 C.F.R. Subchapter B, Records Management (parts 1220-1239), and through NARA’s Records Management Guidance.
All of this information is available on NARA's website at www.archives.gov/records-mgmt. On this web page, the topics include the scheduling and transfer of records, oversight of agencies’ records management programs, and policy and guidance, and there are links to the laws and regulations that govern retention, access and disposal of records. The website also contains the NARA strategic plan and related reports and plans.
When federal agency records are accessioned into NARA for permanent retention, they go through a processing period of arranging and describing them for entry into the catalog and to facilitate their use by researchers. The majority of our records are open to the public.
We hope you find this helpful.
Thank you for your reply. The information you provided is very helpful to me. But I still have some questions:
1. What role does the National Declassification Center play in the process of archives declassification? Although it has been mentioned in the reference, I still can't understand it because of different cultural background.
2. It seems that majority records transferred to NARA are open to public. Then under which condition, does NARA not open records to public?
3. According to The Freedom of Information Act, can we apply for the disclosure of closed records, which transfer to the National Archives?
4.Will documents be stored in other institutions before they are transferred to the archives?
I sincerely appreciate your help.
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I will try to answer your questions in sequence:
1. The National Declassification Center (NDC) acts as a clearing house and declassification point for classified records maintained at the National Archives. The NDC works with both the public and the government organizations that created the classified records to ensure that we release what we can, while protecting what we must.
Under the National Security Information (NSI) executive orders, the current one being E.O. 13526, holders of classified information have an obligation to protect that information as long as it is deemed sensitive. The creators of the classified information are the ones who determine the sensitivity and the longevity of the sensitivity. The NDC owns the declassification process for records maintained at the National Archives that allows us to work with those records creators whose records reside at the National Archives, and, in coordination with the records creators, we declassify what we can to make them available to the public.
2. Yes, many records are unclassified and can be made available to the public. However, even unclassified records may not be made available to the public for reasons that are listed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records that deal with personal identifiable information (PII), proprietary information, and law enforcement information are all examples of the kinds of information that may not be classified, but would not be available to the public.
3. You may make a FOIA request for any records that are in the physical custody of the National Archives. If the records have not been transferred (the actual term is accessioned) to the National Archives, then the FOIA request must go to the government entity that created the requested record.
4. Records copies are the lifeblood of a bureaucracy. Only documents of the most extreme classification and limited distribution will not be found in other offices, departments, and agencies. It is most likely that copies of records created in one organization will appear in the records collections of other organizations or agencies. So there is a good chance that the records of a function of a particular government office will appear in the records of a totally different office and would be accessioned into the National Archives. For example, the cables transmitted between a U.S. embassy and the Department of State would most likely appear also in a State Department sub-organization--for example, cables from the U.S. embassy in Beijing would also appear in the files of the Departments East Asia desk.
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Dear Mr. Wu,
2. To add to the other response, you can specifically find a list of the specific exemptions from releasing records under the "What are FOIA Exemptions" part of this link.
4. To clarify regarding this question, records certainly are typically held first by the agency or department in question before potentially being later transferred to one of our agency's Records Management Center facilities for temporary storage, although this is at the discretion of the agency if they wish to take this step. At this point the records are still considered under the control of the originating agency and a FOIA request for example would still normally need to go through the original agency. Records that are designated to be permanently retained can either be transferred to the archives from a records center, or potentially directly received and accessioned from the agency or department in question in some instances.