There has been a lot of (justifiable on the whole) outrage at recent news stories regarding documents-marked-as-classified found essentially unprotected and untracked in private spaces (that is, something other than government, official-duty offices). It rather pisses me off, for several reasons — not the least of which is my background working with national security materials. The problems of (alphabetically) Messrs Biden, Pence, and Trump that have made the news lately, however, beg the real question:
Just what is classified information, anyway?
I'm glad you asked. (And if you didn't, you don't have the right attitude for even caring about "classified information" anyway.). The official guidance has remained almost entirely unchanged since 1947; in its most current version:
§ 1.1(a) Information may be originally classified… only if…
(4) the original classification authority determines that the unauthorized disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism, and the original classification authority is able to identify or describe the damage.
§ 1.2(a) Information may be classified at one of the following three levels:
(1) "Top Secret" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.
(2) "Secret" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.
(3) "Confidential" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.
§ 1.2(b) Except as otherwise provided by statute, no other terms shall be used to identify United States classified information.
§ 1.2(c) If there is significant doubt about the appropriate level of classification, it shall be classified at the lower level.
Executive Order 13526 (29 Dec 2009).
A few key things to note before getting into the weeds (without relying upon Agent Orange — which actually didn't work nearly as well for its stated purpose as one would expect):
- No other "levels" of classification exist. There is no "above Top Secret" except in the fevered dreams of conspiracy theorists, wannabe intelligence analysts, talking heads, and Hollywood. I've made a lifelong habit of not taking national security advice from any of them, and I genially suggest that you do so too!
There are certain access programs that can restrict who has access, divided into (essentially) two parts: General trustworthiness, and need to know. The paperwork and investigations to get clearance to certain subsets of classified information (mostly Top Secret, but sometimes at lower levels of classification on certain subjects such as chemical weapons) are increasingly involved and annoying — except, that is, for elected officials, but that's another issue entirely. Almost everything else relates not to classification itself, but need to know certain classified information; anything with a specific "code word" (to use the popular parlance) is in this part of the consideration. "Sure, we trust you; you have earned that Top Secret clearance. But you simply don't need to know this information… and what you don't know, you can't compromise accidentally, let alone on purpose." The identity of foreign intelligence assets, for example, is obviously not something that mere users of the information obtained from that asset need to know.
- The classifying authority must be able to specifically identify the harm from disclosure. Not just suspect.
- Nonetheless, most classification "decisions" — which is perhaps giving the knee-jerk reactions typical in some areas of government far too much credit, since "decision" implies "rational" — are wrong. Consider, for example, the Pentagon Papers, which had been classified Top Secret because… well, umm… Reasons. And embarassment, both as to the actual content and as to what had been left out. Sure, that's a historical example; how about something a little more contemporary?
The problem, of course, is that when reputations are on the line, § 1.2(c) — demanding the lowest appropriate level of classification — gets completely ignored. And whether that's a personal, CYA type of care for reputations or something darker, more corrupt, more unconstitutional, even treasonous, the result is very much the same. In my personal experience,1 about 70% of classified documents were overclassified (including assignment to special-access programs when such was unnecessary), and 40% or so shouldn't have been classified at all. Worse yet, declassifying a document requires signoff by either the original classifying authority… or the President, acting in official capacity and maintaining specific records.
The recent incidents are, in one sense, merely the flip side of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. With so much misclassified information, everyone is — and, due to the way information gets classified in the first place must be — completely reliant on the markings. Because there really is information that merits classification under the standards expressed in law all the way back, and therefore mishandling marked materials must be taken seriously.
That said, this is also an opportunity to revisit the mechanisms of original classification, and take better care to ensure that it's not personal — or institutional, as for the Pentagon Papers — interests that are driving classification (or declassification) decisions. The means shape the ends, guys; and if we want a working representative democracy, we need to ensure that we follow our own rules. If, on the other hand, y'all don't want a working representative democracy but something closer to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (c. 1985) or a stereotypical banana republic/post-colonial neonation straight out of a bad 1990s TV movie because that will ensure that y'all's policy preferences get embedded so deeply that not even D–503 will question them, just Keep Overclassifying and Carry On. I thoroughly expect that the latter has a greater probability than the former.
- During the entire time I had access to classified documents, and to this day regarding information I may or may not have gleaned or inferred from such documents, I never authorized or participated in the mining of manganese nodules from the floor of the East China Sea. I can neither confirm nor deny whether I did so in any other location. tl;dr Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no
politically expedient soundbiteslies.