Thursday, December 16, 2010


Troutsky asks:
classified is a weird term. Perhaps you could give us a post describing the process, what it actually delineates.

How arbitrary is it? How do we know?
I'll comment, based on what I've seen, but my knowledge is not exhaustive. My sense is that every government agency does things its own way and has its own rules. There is some commonality among the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State, although far from complete synchronization.

Rules for classification exist and are called "classification guidance." The rules can change frequently, and amendments to the guidance are sent out from the classification arms of the various departments to the organizations handling and generating classified matter.

Those organizations usually have people who keep track of the guidance and advise others in the organization. Certain people are designated to be able to classify material at various levels. These two sets of people do not necessarily overlap.

People working on sensitive projects must have what they write reviewed for classification, which comes in different shapes and levels. Troop movements, for example, are classified in a different way than nuclear weapons design information.

How arbitrary is it? Hard to say. Some things are fairly clearcut, others not so much. And I have no doubt that, particularly at higher bureaucratic levels, which have less accountability, stuff gets classified because someone would be embarrassed if it got out. I've never seen that, but I have seen how people think. The guidance can also be hard to work through. During the 1990s, a lot of nuclear weapons information was declassified. Now it looks like it's being reclassified. So some of the guidance may be self-contradictory or just hard to interpret and apply.

How do we know? Supposedly there are various checks and balances within the classification system, requests for additional review, that sort of thing. But, of course, all that is part of the classified system and not available to those outside it, or even to those inside it without the "need to know." As long as we have secrets and classification, it will be hard to make the system accountable, and it will tend to grow. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, Secrecy, is a good discussion of why secrecy in government should be kept to a minimum.

classified is a weird term. I've always thought so. I suspect it's a euphemism that refers to the various levels of secrecy. So a classifier classifies documents into those levels.


troutsky said...

Thanks.Journalists and others are throwing the term around a great deal and I realized I had no idea what it meant. The Assange trial may enlighten us all.

MT said...

You used to hear "classified top secret" and see "Top Secret" rubber stamped on documents and folders in the movies. To me that meant "top secret" was the class of document, and that to be "classified" was to have that designation. Also it meant that the movies in which the labels on the folders read "Classified Top Secret" were lame.

MT said...

"is to have a class designation" I mean (not the "top secret" designation in particular, being presumably just the topmost of many).

Andy said...


There are three classification levels which are Top Secret, Secret and Confidential. They are ostensibly used to delineate the level of harm to the US should the information be disclosed. Although there is guidance, there is still some latitude on where something should fall. Secret is by far the largest and most-used level.

There is also "SCI" which compartmentalizes information, usually based on source. Additionally, there are a host of caveats, releasability tags, and declassification codes added onto the end of a classification.

In short, it can get very complicated, especially when since the classification system has changed several times in the last twenty years.

One additional thing. Information can be classified because the nature of the information itself or it can be classified because of it's source. It's frequently the case that information that appears to be obviously unclassified is actually classified because of the source. For instance, a leader of another country telling his/her defense minister to meet for coffee does not seem classified, but if the method used to obtain that involved eavesdropping on a foreign encrypted communication system, then you can, and should, expect that to be highly classified despite its banality. A lot of the wikileaks diplomatic documents were classified for that reason - it's not so much what was said, but who said it.

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