thirty years in Germany and Italyfifty in France and up to 75 years in USA. There is no unanimity regarding the deadline for opening official documents to the public: everything depends on their importance for the security of the State.
The United States does not have an Official Secrets Act and the disclosure of classified information is generally not illegal, but there are several laws protecting secret information that primarily punish the disclosure of defense-related secrets. It is the courts that ultimately decide what should be secret and what should not.
France, right to declassification but with restrictions
The law establishes the right of citizens to access administrative documents, but with restrictions for a wide range of cases: the deliberations of the Council of Ministers, national defense, foreign policy, the security of the State and of persons or the integrity of currency and public credit.
In the case of documents that may affect national defense, their public dissemination, theft or destruction are punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of 100,000 euros.
These documents that may affect national defense may be disclosed after 50 years, with two exceptions: when they may affect the security of the persons mentioned or when they may allow the design, manufacture, location or use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
In Germany, 30 years for declassification
In Germany, the law establishes a period of 30 years for the declassification of official secrets or sensitive material, preferably from the different internal, external or military espionage departments.
However, and according to a reform approved in 2017, these same espionage departments – whose coordination depends directly on the Foreign Ministry – can determine that they are not declassified, by virtue of a series of exceptions.
Italy; 15 years extendable to another 15
The duration of official secrets is 15 years, although when that period of time expires, the government has 30 days to decide whether to extend it and, if so, extend it to 30 years, a time that cannot be exceeded.
Official secrecy must always be motivated by the prime minister in a restricted session before the Committee for the Security of the Republic, a parliamentary commission that regulates the activity of the secret services.
United Kingdom: 30 years extendable
In the UK, the Official Secrets Act is intended to prevent the leak of sensitive government information and prevent acts of espionage. All government officials, employees who work in security services, judges, police officers, members of the armed forces or those who have a contract with the Executive are owed to this law.
Sensitive government documents can only be made public after 30 years, but the deadline could be extended if authorities judge that their disclosure could harm the country’s image, national security or foreign relations.
United States, up to 75 years for “highly compromised” information
The United States does not have an Official Secrets Act and the disclosure of classified information is generally not illegal, but there are several secret information laws that punish the disclosure of defense-related secrets and only the courts can determine whether a information compromises national security.
The US government has three levels of information classification: confidential, secret and top secret, and according to a 2009 decree, its declassification occurs automatically after 25 years.
But there is information that may continue to be sensitive and pose a threat to national security, and in these cases the review of its publication, in whole or in part, lasts up to 50 years.
But there is still highly sensitive information, such as the identity of an agent or the design of a weapon of mass destruction, that can keep a document classified for up to 75 years. Beyond that, a special permit is required.
Belgium does not have clear procedures to declassify state secrets
A 1998 law in Belgium created a general framework to protect the confidentiality of sensitive documents and mainly set strong penalties in case of unauthorized dissemination, but did not include a procedure for declassification.
The ecological parties Ecolo and Groen have proposed a bill, backed by the government coalition, which proposes that a document can be made public in a period of 20, 30 or 50 years depending on whether it is considered “confidential”, “secret”. ” or “top secret”, the three levels used by Defense or Foreign Affairs.
In order to declassify, an explicit endorsement will be required from the authority concerned, which must make a decision six months before the end of the term and which could request extensions of ten to ten years in a procedure controlled by the federal Parliament. The total period cannot exceed one hundred years.
Austria, the official secret enshrined in the Constitution
In Austria, the “official secret” is enshrined in the Constitution, which has generated problems in compliance with the Transparency Law. In the last decade there has been an intense debate about removing “official secrets” from its constitutional status in order to improve transparency in all areas financed with public money.
The Transparency Law obliges the authorities to provide information to citizens within eight weeks, but only to the extent that it does not affect official secrets, which has led to numerous problems.
The NGO Transparency International considers the current Austrian model “an anomaly in Europe since ‘official secret’ remains the default position and access to information is treated as an exception”.
Hungary: top secrets until the age of 90
Hungary, a communist country between 1949-1989, establishes four types of official secrets. “Limited distribution” data can be classified for a period of 10 to 50 years, “sensitive” between 20 and 60 years, while “secret”, as well as “top secret” between 30 and 90 years.
All classifications must be reviewed every five years, when it can be modified or even eliminated.