Classified Information In The United States
The United States government classification system is established under Executive Order 13526, the latest in a long series of executive orders on the topic. Issued by President Barack Obama in 2009, Executive Order 13526 replaced earlier executive orders on the topic and modified the regulations codified to 32 C.F.R. 2001. It lays out the system of classification, declassification, and handling of national security information generated by the U.S. government and its employees and contractors, as well as information received from other governments.
The desired degree of secrecy about such information is known as its sensitivity. Sensitivity is based upon a calculation of the damage to national security that the release of the information would cause. The United States has three levels of classification: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Each level of classification indicates an increasing degree of sensitivity. Thus, if one holds a Top Secret security clearance, one is allowed to handle information up to the level of Top Secret, including Secret and Confidential information. If one holds a Secret clearance, one may not then handle Top Secret information, but may handle Secret and Confidential classified information.
In the United States, a nation without a British-style Official Secrets Act, the disclosure of classified information is not, in general, illegal. The legislative and executive branches of government, including US presidents, have frequently leaked classified information to journalists. Congress has repeatedly resisted or failed to pass a law that generally outlaws disclosing classified information. Instead, a "patchwork" of different laws criminalize only certain types of classified information, and then only under certain circumstances. Most espionage law only criminalizes national defense information; only a jury can decide if a given document meets that criteria, and judges have repeatedly said that being "classified" does not necessarily make information become related to the "national defense". Furthermore, by law, information may not be classified merely because it would be embarrassing or to cover illegal activity; information may only be classified to protect national security objectives.
Read more about Classified Information In The United States: Classified Vs. Unclassified Information, Levels of Classification Used By The U.S. Government, Proper Procedure For Classifying U.S. Government Documents, Classifications and Clearances Between U.S. Government Agencies, Categories That Are Not Classifications, Sharing of Classified Information With Other Countries, Claims of U.S. Government Misuse of The Classification System
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