The U.S. government possesses vast amounts of critical data, with three levels of classification that designate how sensitive certain information is. Learn more about how classified information is categorized to ensure our national security at the highest level.
What is classified information?
Classified information is information a U.S. government agency or contractor receives or creates that, if released, would seriously damage national security.
(Information that is still important but not enough to be considered classified is labeled “sensitive.”)
The President of the United States is in charge of the classified information system, articulating rules and regulations through executive order.
(The most recent executive order, E.O. 13526, was issued in 2009 by Barack Obama. Read more below.)
Classified information can take any form. Paper documents are the most common, but photographs, maps, motion pictures, videotapes, databases, microfilms, hard drives, and CDs can also be considered classified.
But regardless of the form it takes, classified information must be protected until it is formally declassified.
Those who leak classified information are either subject to a fine or ten years in prison.
Information can be deemed as classified only if an official determination is made that its release would endanger national security.
Though not all revelations of classified information, like nuclear launch codes, will cause wide-scale harm, dealing with massive amounts of critical data over an extended period of time increases the likelihood that bits of information will be leaked.
What are classification levels?
Though classified information should be protected at all costs, there are varying levels of damage that would ensue should such information be leaked.
There are three classification levels that reflect the degree of damage: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.
- Lowest: Confidential information applies to information that could “cause damage” to U.S. national security if released.
- Middle: Secret information applies to information that could “cause serious damage” to U.S. national security if released.
- Highest: Top secret information applies to information that could “cause exceptionally grave damage” to U.S. national security if released.
The more important information is to national security–that is, the more damage that would be caused by disclosure–the higher the level of classification.
Below is an image detailing the effects of disclosing classified information at all three levels:
Certain information at the Top Secret level is said to be “compartmented,” meaning only people with a top-secret security clearance can view it. Sometimes, such information is given a code word, ensuring only those cleared for that particular code are granted access.
It is common for documents to contain information at different classification levels. Certain paragraphs may have markers for the various levels: “C” for Confidential, “S” for Secret, and “TS” for Top Secret.
But there’s still a little confusion regarding how such information should be classified.
As a general rule, the risks of disclosing information should be weighed against the benefits. If the net risks outweigh the net benefits, then the information should at least be classified as Confidential.
At the Confidential level, the benefits of disclosure are expected to be about equal to the risks; but at the Secret and Top Secret levels, the damage caused by disclosure is almost always greater than the benefits.
Examples of classified information
The Department of Defense (DoD) classifies the following as Confidential information:
- Operational and battle reports which contain information of value to the enemy
- Intelligence reports
- The information indicates the strength of our ground, air, and naval forces in the United States and overseas areas, identity or composition of units, or quantity of specific items of equipment pertaining thereto
- Unless a higher classification is needed to protect information relating to a particular munition:
- Documents and manuals containing technical information used for training, maintenance, and inspection of classified munitions of war
- Research, development, production, and procurement of munitions of war
- Performance characteristics, test data, design, and production data on munitions of war
- Operational and tactical doctrine
- Mobilization plans
The DoD classifies the following as Secret information:
- A war plan or a complete plan for a future operation of war not included under TOP SECRET, and documents showing the disposition of our forces the unauthorized disclosure of which, standing alone, could result in actual compromise of such SECRET plans
- Defense or other military plans not included under TOP SECRET or (1) above including certain development and procurement plans and programs but not necessarily including all emergency plans
- Specific information which, standing alone, reveals the military capabilities or state of preparedness of the Armed Forces, but not including information the unauthorized disclosure of which could result in compromise of a TOP SECRET plan
- Information that reveals the strength of our forces engaged in hostilities; quantities or nature of their equipment; or the identity or composition of units in an active theater of operations or other geographic areas where our forces are engaged in hostilities, except that mailing addresses may include organization designation. The information which reveals the strength, identity, composition, or location of units normally requires classification as SECRET in time of war. In peacetime SECRET classification of information pertaining to units may be appropriate when related to war plans, estimates, or deployments that involve classified information
- Intelligence and other information, the value of which depends upon concealing the fact that the United States possesses it, except when possession of intelligence or other information concomitantly discloses a particular intelligence or other special operation falling within [the TOP SECRET classification level]
- Particulars of scientific or research projects which incorporate new technological developments or techniques having direct military applications of vital importance to the national defense
- Specific details or data relating to new materials or important modifications of materials which reveal significant military advances or new technological developments having direct military application of vital importance to the national defense
- Information of vital importance to the national defense concerning specific quantities of war reserves
- Indications of weakness, e.g., shortages of significant or sensitive items of equipment
The DoD classifies the following as examples of Top Secret information:
- A strategic plan documenting the overall conduct of a war
- War planning documents which contain worldwide
- Planning data and assumptions
- Wartime planning factors for the use of nuclear weapons
- Intelligence estimates of enemy capabilities
- Force composition and development
- Real estate requirements and utilization by geographical area which are time-phased for a period of months.
- An operations plan either for a single operation or a series of connected operations containing any of the factors in (2) above and with sortie rates or target data
- Intelligence documents that contain completed intelligence of such scope that it reveals a major intelligence production effort on the part of the United States and which would permit an evaluation by unauthorized recipients of the success attained by, or the capabilities of, the United States intelligence services
- A plan or policy for conducting intelligence or other special operations and information revealing a particular intelligence operation or other special operation provided that the compromise of such plan, policy, or particular operation could result in exceptionally grave damage to the Nation. Intelligence operations may include certain specifically designated and controlled collection projects
- Vital information concerning radically new and extremely important equipment (munitions of war), such as nuclear weapons, atomic weapons stockpile data, and any other munitions of comparable importance the scientific or technological development aspects of which are vital to national defense
Who classifies information?
On December 29, 2009, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13526.
This is the latest executive order detailing guidelines for classifying sensitive information, replacing E.O. 12958, issued by Bill Clinton, and E.O. 13292, issued by George W. Bush.
The stated purpose is to create a “uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information, including information relating to defense against transnational terrorism.”
This order explicitly states who can classify information: the President, the Vice President, and authorized agency heads and officials.
The question as to what information should qualify as classified information is subjective, as different agencies and officials often disagree. But some information, like the identities of covert operatives or battle plans, should be kept classified.
The President has the ultimate declassification authority, and he may declassify information at any time.
You can access the original text of Executive Order 13526 here.
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