Here’s how government documents are classified to protect sensitive information


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(THE CONVERSATION) Documents requested by the US Department of Justice from former President Donald Trump may contain material related to what The New York Times has described as “some of the most classified programs run by the United States” . The Washington Post reported that “classified nuclear weapons documents were among the items sought by FBI agents” during a search of Trump’s Florida home on August 8, 2022.

Classified information is the type of material that the US government or agency deems sufficiently sensitive to national security that access to it should be controlled and restricted.

There are several degrees of classification. Documents related to nuclear weapons will have different levels of classification depending on the sensitivity of the information contained. Documents containing information relating to the design of nuclear weapons or their location would be highly classified. Other information may still be highly classified but considered less sensitive. For example, in 2010 President Barack Obama declassified the number of nuclear weapons in the US stockpile.

In general, classified documents must be treated in such a way as to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the information they contain. This includes securing documents in a safe or other authorized storage container when documents are not in use by staff. If staff need to move them from one location to another, they should follow safety protocols to do so.

Although classified information may be taken off premises in the course of official duties, bringing classified material into the house is prohibited by executive order.

Authorization and classification

Prior to entering academia, I worked for many years as an analyst at the Department of State and the Department of Defense.

I held top-secret clearance, frequently worked with classified information, and participated in classified meetings. For example, I dealt with information relating to weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation.

Dealing with written classified information is generally straightforward. Documents are marked indicating classification levels.

Tens of thousands of people working for the US government, both directly and as contractors, have security clearances that allow them to access classified information. Many people with security clearances never handle classified material, but must be cleared so they can be present when classified information is discussed.

But not all classified details describe covert operations or spy identities. Many are rather mundane. A former colleague of mine who was a retired CIA analyst used to tell his students that he would never knowingly, but almost certainly inadvertently, share a tidbit of classified information in the classroom. It is difficult to remember many “small” details that are sensitive.

Dealing with large amounts of classified information over the course of a career increases the possibility of accidentally sharing a small nugget. Knowingly sharing classified information or revealing information that one should know is sensitive is another matter.

Here’s how the classification system works.

Classification levels and content

The US government uses three levels of classification to designate how sensitive certain information is: confidential, secret, and top secret.

The lowest level, confidential, refers to information the disclosure of which could harm the national security of the United States. The “secret” designation refers to information the disclosure of which could cause “serious” harm to the national security of the United States. The “top secret” designation means that disclosure of the document could cause “exceptionally serious” damage to national security.

At the top secret level, some information is “compartmentalised”. This means that only certain people with a top-secret security clearance can view it to reduce the risk of disclosures. It is not because a person has an authorization at a level which corresponds to a document that he must access it.

This is often used for the most sensitive information, such as that relating to sources and methods – i.e. how and from where intelligence is collected.

Several other designations indicate restricted access in the top secret and secret designations. Critical nuclear weapon design information is a designation given to classified material related to the design and operation of nuclear weapons. This designation would be in addition to a secret or top-secret designation, but is not a classification level. For example, someone with top-secret clearance working on counterinsurgency issues would not have access to critical information about nuclear weapon design.

It is common for written documents to contain information that is classified at different levels and some information that is not even classified. Individual paragraphs are marked to indicate the level of classification. For example, the title of a document may be preceded by the marker “U”, indicating that the title and existence of the document are unclassified.

In a document, paragraphs can be marked “S” for secret, “C” for confidential, or “TS” for top secret. The highest classification of a part of the document determines its overall classification. This approach makes it easy to identify and remove classified parts of a document so that less sensitive sections can be shared in unclassified environments.

A sitting president can access any classified document.

Who’s deciding ?

Executive Order 13256, issued by Obama, specifies who can specifically classify information.

The power to take certain information – for example, the existence of a weapons program – and classify it as top secret is granted only to specific individuals, including the president and vice president and certain chiefs of agency.

Material declassification procedures are complicated. However, the President has the ultimate power of declassification and can declassify anything at any time, subject to certain provisions of the Atomic Energy Act.

Deciding what information is classified is subjective. Certain things must clearly remain secret, such as the identity of the secret agents or the battle plans. Other problems are not so obvious. Should we classify the simple fact that the Secretary of State had a conversation with a counterpart? Different agencies disagree on issues like this all the time.

The mishandling of classified information, especially if it is accidental, is generally treated as an administrative matter. However, more serious violations may result in criminal charges and penalties. Federal law (18 U.S. Code § 1924) states that anyone who “knowingly deletes such documents or materials without authorization and with intent to retain such documents or materials in an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or a maximum prison term of five years. , or both.”

This story is an updated version of an article originally published on May 16, 2017.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here:


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