The media is ablaze over President Trump sharing classified information with Russian foreign officials—but what is classified information exactly? And what happens if you disclose it? Good news: You’ve been granted clearance to acquire this not-quite-top-secret knowledge.
What Classified Information Is
Generally speaking, classified information is knowledge or material that a government decides is sensitive and requires some kind of special care or protection. Usually laws or regulations are made so only specific groups of people—usually government officials—can access the restricted content. Ideally, this information is never accessed or learned by those who do not need to know it.
This information could be something relatively mundane to the public, like government office records—or something far more earth-shattering, like the names of covert operatives, locations of weapons of mass destruction, or information about ISIS casually being mentioned to Russian officials over coffee. Basically, it’s the information the U.S. government deems unsafe to be public knowledge. After all, if everyone knew the name of a covert operative, they wouldn’t be covert. If a terrorist organization could Google search where weapons were, they could make devastating precision strikes on those locations. You get the picture.
The Different Types of Classified Information
To access—or even handle—classified information, you need a formal security clearance issued by the U.S. government. To get this clearance, you need to have a job that requires it, and you must pass a thorough background check.
But not all clearances are alike. There are several tiers of classified information sensitivity as defined by Executive Order 13549. Here they are going from least sensitive to most sensitive:
- Public Trust: General knowledge the public is allowed to know. No clearance required.
- Confidential: The lowest level of classified information. This information could potentially hamper national security efforts if it was disclosed to the public.
- Secret: The second-highest level of classified information, and the level that most classified information is held at. The unauthorized disclosure of Secret-level information would cause serious damage to national security.
- Top Secret: The highest level of classified information. According to Executive Order 13549, unauthorized disclosure of this information would be expected to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security. Think secret code words for military operations, nuke codes, and maybe aliens or something.
Individuals who hold security clearances may access classified information from their tier, as well as some information from tiers below it if necessary. An official document may be marked with one or several of these levels, depending on the sensitivity of the information. The U.S. government chooses the level based on a thorough impact assessment.
There’s also a final non-official category of classified information known as “unclassified.” This is formerly classified information that may be released to those with no security clearance. Information may be disclosed on a “For Official Use Only” basis, like with law enforcement agencies, or be released to the public via the Freedom of Information Act.
What Happens If You Disclose Classified Information
People disclose classified information all the time. Jeffrey Fields, a University of Southern California professor who once held Top Secret clearance, explains that it can be difficult to remember what information learned in oral briefings is considered classified:
Government employees sometimes reveal classified details accidentally in casual conversations and media interviews. We may not hear about it because it’s not in the interviewee’s or employee’s interest to point it out after the fact, or he or she may not even realize it at the time…. A former colleague of mine who was a retired CIA analyst used to tell his students he would never knowingly, but almost certainly would inadvertently, share a tidbit of classified information in the classroom. It is very difficult to remember many “smaller” details that are sensitive.
So mistakes are not uncommon. Those with high levels of security clearance deal with a tremendous amount of classified information, and things occasionally slip through the cracks. Take, for example, the case of Senator David Boren accidentally revealing the name of a clandestine CIA agent during a news conference back in 1991. Whoops.
But what happens if you intentionally disclose classified information without authorization? Well, it’s a federal crime under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the statute Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 798, which covers the disclosure of classified information. Basically, it means that anyone who intentionally communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available classified information to an unauthorized person is in big trouble.
This could mean a prison sentence of up to 10 years, a large fine, or possibly being charged with treason, depending on the circumstances. However, the U.S. government gets to decide who it goes after for breaking these rules. More often than not, they target whistleblowers who seek to reveal government misconduct, and let other disclosures slide if they’re not intentionally trying to damage the nation’s security.
So, what about President Trump? Will he get in trouble for disclosing classified information to Russian officials? Don’t hold your breath. As Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, explains to Rachel Martin at NPR, the president has control over classified information:
…the definition of classified information is material the president wants to protect. So if the president wants to disclose it, he gets to disclose it. And disclosures that would be a very serious crime if anyone else did them are almost certainly not if the president does them. So, you know, if the question is, is there a criminal problem here, the answer is almost certainly not.
He’s calling the shots when it comes to which information is classified or not, so he can spill the beans all he likes. Of course, Wittes is careful to point out that just because what Trump is doing isn’t technically against federal law doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Actions like his ruin major intelligence operations by laying out all of our cards to an adversarial power. It’s not illegal, but it’s not ideal either.
Update: The previous explanation on how different security clearances may access information made it sound like Top Secret clearance may look at any and all classified information they want. This is not true. The text above has been changed to clear this up.
source: gizmodo.com by Patrick Allan