From Top Secret Vault to Open Stacks: Declassification of Moving Images

Have you ever wondered how moving images and sound recordings get declassified? The process isn’t as simple as you might think. Because our records are media based – film, video or audio – the review process takes a few extra steps.

Agencies transfer classified moving images and sound recordings to NARA according to Records Control Schedules that define when particular records are eligible for transfer. Records remain in classified storage until their review deadline approaches. Review deadlines for classified records were established by Executive Order 13526, which requires agencies to periodically reevaluate a record’s classification.

Before Federal agencies can review their film, video or audio though, our Motion Picture Preservation Lab and AudioVideo Preservation Lab inspect the records and make repairs when needed.

To walk through the declassification process I’ll use film as an example. First, the Motion Picture lab inspects the film elements to identify a viewable copy. The preservation specialists hand wind through the film, repairing tears and checking shrinkage, which happens when film degrades, to make sure it can be played without causing damage to the film.

Edge Damage
Preservation specialist inspecting film.

If we’re lucky we receive multiple copies of films from an agency, including a print that can be viewed on our flatbed machines. Many times all we receive is a negative, which requires digitization by the lab prior to agency review.

Once we identify a viewable copy it’s time to notify the agency that we have a classified film ready for their review. The National Declassification Center (NDC) facilitates appointments for film review, and archivists from my office (the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch) or the film lab operate the equipment for the agency reviewers. (DVDs and CDs can be reviewed by agencies at any time.) After an agency notifies us of their review decision the item is either returned to classified storage if it remains classified, or begins the physical declassification process.

Once a film has been declassified by an agency it gets sent back to our lab where preservation specialists attach declassification leader to all the film reels, stating that the film has been declassified. We leave all original classification markings on the film, so as not to alter the original record. Finally, we shelve the film in our stacks, and update or create an entry in our catalog so you, our researchers, will be able to locate it!

The Use of War Dogs is an example of an interesting declassified film in our holdings. This particular film was made by the Signal Corps in 1943 to document the training of dogs during World War II. This was the first war that the United States used dogs to quickly transport supplies and messages, aid medics in locating injured soldiers, and alert soldiers to intruders.


The Use of War Dogs, 1943    NAID: 24494 / Local Identifier: 111-FB-91

Lists of recently declassified moving images and sound recordings can be located by clicking on the Declassification Quarterly Reports category on the upper left side of the blog.


2 thoughts on “From Top Secret Vault to Open Stacks: Declassification of Moving Images

Comments are closed.