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Classified information in the United States


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Junior Supervisor

Junior Supervisor

  • [7] FLAG OFFICER

The U.S. classification system is currently established under Executive Order 13526 and has three levels of classification—Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The U.S. had a Restricted level during World War II but no longer does. U.S. regulations state that information received from other countries at the Restricted level should be handled as Confidential. A variety of markings are used for material that is not classified, but whose distribution is limited administratively or by other laws, e.g., For Official Use Only (FOUO), or Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU). The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 provides for the protection of information related to the design of nuclear weapons. The term "Restricted Data" is used to denote certain nuclear technology. Information about the storage, use or handling of nuclear material or weapons is marked "Formerly Restricted Data". These designations are used in addition to level markings (Confidential, Secret and Top Secret). Information protected by the Atomic Energy Act is protected by law and information classified under the Executive Order is protected by Executive privilege.

The U.S. government insists it is "not appropriate" for a court to question whether any document is legally classified. In the 1973 trial of Daniel Ellsberg for releasing the Pentagon Papers, the judge did not allow any testimony from Ellsberg, claiming it was "irrelevant", because the assigned classification could not be challenged. The charges against Ellsberg were ultimately dismissed after it was revealed that the government had broken the law in secretly breaking into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist and in tapping his telephone without a warrant. Ellsberg insists that the legal situation in the U.S. today is worse than it was in 1973, and Edward Snowden could not get a fair trial. The State Secrets Protection Act of 2008 might have given judges the authority to review such questions in camera, but the bill was not passed.

When a government agency acquires classified information through covert means, or designates a program as classified, the agency asserts "ownership" of that information and considers any public availability of it to be a violation of their ownership — even if the same information was acquired independently through "parallel reporting" by the press or others. For example, although the CIA drone program has been widely discussed in public since the early 2000s, and reporters personally observed and reported on drone missile strikes, the CIA still considers the very existence of the program to be classified in its entirety, and any public discussion of it technically constitutes exposure of classified information. "Parallel reporting" was at issue in determining what constitutes "classified" information during the Hillary Clinton email controversy when Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield noted, "When policy officials obtain information from open sources, ‘think tanks,’ experts, foreign government officials, or others, the fact that some of the information may also have been available through intelligence channels does not mean that the information is necessarily classified.”

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Field Agent

Field Agent

  • [7] FLAG OFFICER

I have met CIA agents under the cover of department of state lawyers that assess the sensitivity of information presented in court. It is interesting to see a more high profile example of how exactly that is executed and even the extension of jurisdiction into owning the information as intellectual property. 

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