Classification Procedures

Original and Derivative Classification

Executive Order 12958, as amended March 25, 2003, sets U.S. Government policy for classifying national security information that must be protected from unauthorized disclosure. Information is classified in one of two ways -- originally or derivatively.

Original classification is the initial determination that information requires protection. Only U.S. Government officials to whom this authority has been delegated in writing and who have been trained in classification requirements have the authority for original classification. Original classification authorities issue security classification guides that others use in making derivative classification decisions. Most government employees and contractors make derivative classification decisions.

Derivative classification is the act of classifying a specific item of information or material on the basis of an original classification decision already made by an authorized original classification authority. The source of authority for derivative classification ordinarily consists of a previously classified document or a classification guide issued by an original classification authority.

For example, Defense contractors make derivative classification decisions based on the Contract Security Classification Specification that is issued with each classified contract. If a contractor develops an unsolicited proposal or originates information not in the performance of a classified contract, the following rules apply. If the information was previously identified as classified, it should be classified derivatively. If the information was not previously classified, but the contractor believes the information may be or should be classified, the contractor should protect the information as though classified at the appropriate level and submit it to the agency that has an interest in the subject matter for a classification determination. In such a case, the material should be marked CLASSIFICATION DETERMINATION PENDING. Protect as though classified (TOP SECRET, SECRET, or CONFIDENTIAL).

The full text of Executive Order 12958 is available at DSS website at  Classification guidelines for defense contractors are in Chapter 4 of the National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual. Full text of the NISPOM is also available on the Defense Security Service Internet site at,

Classification Levels

Information that must be controlled to protect the national security is assigned one of three levels of classification, as follows:

  • TOP SECRET information is information which, if disclosed without authorization, could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.
  • SECRET information is information which, if disclosed without authorization, could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.
  • CONFIDENTIAL information is information which, if disclosed without authorization, could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security.

Atomic energy information is classified under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and the procedures differ from those prescribed for national security information. Atomic energy information is automatically classified and remains classified until a positive action is taken to declassify it. It may be declassified only by the Department of Energy. Consult your security officer for information on marking and handling atomic energy information. There are two types:

  • RESTRICTED DATA covers "all data concerning (1) design, manufacture, or utilization of atomic weapons; (2) the production of special nuclear material; or (3) the use of special nuclear material in the production of energy," except for data that has been declassified or removed from the Restricted Data category.
  • FORMERLY RESTRICTED DATA is information which has been removed from the Restricted Data category after Department of Energy and Department of Defense have jointly determined that the information relates primarily to the military utilization of atomic weapons and can be adequately safeguarded as National Security Information. The word "formerly" only means that such information is no longer subject to controls under the Atomic Energy Act. Formerly Restricted Data remains classified and subject to controls on national security information. Such data may not be given to any other nation except under specially approved agreements.  It is identified and handled as RESTRICTED DATA when sent outside the United States.

RESTRICTED DATA and FORMERLY RESTRICTED DATA should also be marked with one of the three classification levels -- TOP SECRET, SECRET, or CONFIDENTIAL.

Markings for the "Classified by," "Derived from," and "Declassify on" Lines

All classified information shall be marked to reflect the source of the classification, reason for the classification, and instructions for declassification or downgrading. The markings used to show this information must appear toward the bottom on the cover, first page, title page, or in another prominent position. Nondocumentary material should show the required information on the material itself or, if not practical, in related or accompanying documentation.

"Classified by" Line: The "Classified by" line is used only on originally classified documents. It identifies the original classification authority by name or personal identifier and position and cites justification for the classification. This is followed by a "Reasons" line that cites by name or number one of the seven approved classification categories specified in Executive Order 12958.

Example of


"Derived from" Line: Any appropriately cleared employee has the authority to derivatively classify a document. The "Derived from" line cites the source document or classification guide which allowed you to determine that the information in your document is classified. The date of the source document or classification guide is to be included. If more than one source document, classification guide, or combination of these provided the derivative classification guidance, write "Multiple Sources" on the "Derived from" line. A record of these multiple sources must be maintained on or with the file copy of the document.


Example of


"Declassify on" Line: The classified by or derived from lines should be followed by a line that identifies when the classified information is to be declassified. This information is obtained from the "Declassify on _____" line of the source document or from a classification guide. If your document classification is derived from "Multiple Sources" and different declassification instructions apply, you must use the most restrictive declassification instruction that applies.


The Original Classification Authority has the following options for declassification instructions for documents that were originally classified under Executive Order 12958.

  • Whenever possible, the declassification date should be specified as a date or event that corresponds to the lapse of the information's national security sensitivity. However, the date or event must not exceed 25 years from the date of the original classification.

  • If information should remain classified beyond 25 years, there are a number of exemptions that may apply. This may be appropriate, for example, if the information would reveal the identity of a confidential human source, or a human intelligence source, or reveal information about the application of an intelligence source or method.

Many older documents classified prior to Executive Order 12958 still carry the declassification designation OADR -- Originating Agency's Determination Required. When one of these documents is the source document for derivative classification, the Declassify on line should read: Source document marked "OADR" Date of source (insert date).

No U.S. document shall be downgraded below the highest level of foreign government information contained in the document, nor shall it be declassified without the written approval of the foreign government that originated the information.

Classified Information Appearing in Public Media: The fact that classified information has been made public does not mean it is automatically declassified. Information remains classified unless and until it is formally declassified. If you become aware of classified or other sensitive information appearing in the public media, bring it to the attention of your security office.

Downgrading or Declassifying Classified Information: Information is downgraded or declassified based on the loss of sensitivity of the information due to the passage of time or on occurrence of a specific event. Declassification is not automatically an approval for public disclosure.

Marking Downgraded or Declassified Material: Classified information that is downgraded or declassified should be promptly and conspicuously marked to indicate the change.

Classification Pending: Material that you generate, and that you believe may be classified and for which no classification guidance is available, must be protected and handled as though classified at the appropriate level until a classification determination is obtained from the appropriate government organization. This material should be marked as follows: 


The derivative and warning notice markings need not be applied in this situation. Reproduction should be held to an absolute minimum until a classification determination is received.

Challenging a Classification

Any approved holder of classified information who believes the information is classified improperly or unnecessarily, or that current security considerations justify downgrading to a lower classification or upgrading to a higher classification, or that security classification guidance is improper or inadequate, is encouraged and expected to challenge the classification status.

Government employees should pursue such actions through established agency procedures that protect individuals from retribution for bringing such actions, provide an opportunity for review by an impartial official or panel, and provide a right of appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. Contractors should appeal such issues through their pertinent government contracting authority.

Related Topics: Marking Classified Information, Handling Classified Information, For Official Use Only (FOUO), Foreign Government Classified Information.




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