Do families ever get to find out about the (de)classified careers of loved ones?

I have a relative who passed away a while back, who worked for the government or military on classified stuff. The things he worked on early in his career were eventually declassified, so he was able to talk about them a little. Presumably the later stuff will also be declassified some day. If that happens, is there a way for families to get specific information on what a person did, if the person wasn’t high up enough to get into the history books?

You can request their service records from the military. Be prepared to prove that you are a relative though. It’s been a while since I’ve had to answer this question but I’m pretty sure you can write the Department of Defense, some section of it at least, and they’ll be able to send you the information. Might take a while though.

Applying under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act may yield some interesting info; virtually all Federal agencies have a FOIA office for responding to such queries. Be warned: it can take a loooooong time because of limited staffing, tiny budgets, voluminous files, and bureaucratic lethargy and/or hostility to FOIA.

Ted Gup’s The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives is an interesting look at how long espionage-related secrets can be held, in some cases many decades after an intelligence agency’s actual need for them has passed. Some of the families of the agents whom Gup profiles didn’t know how their kin died until his book came out.

Joe Desch’s daughter was able to find out about her father’s efforts to build the WW-II decoding device called the bombe ((named after a chocolate dessert). The project was classified for something like 50 years.

related question, how/what do they tell families of fallen agents/operatives beyond the “killed in line of duty” bit?

There are still people on the wall at the CIA who are only represented by stars, because there’s still some issue with admitting their names.

Retired intelligence officers will sometimes befriend family members at a funeral, and fill them in as much as they can. I have also seen eulogies go through declassification review to obtain permission to tell a bit more than would normally be said. Such requests are taken seriously, and approved is possible.