United States Government Secrecy - Proper Procedure For Classifying U.S. Government Documents

Proper Procedure For Classifying U.S. Government Documents

To be properly classified, a classification authority (an individual charged by the U.S. government with the right and responsibility to properly determine the level of classification and the reason for classification) must determine the appropriate classification level, as well as the reason information is to be classified. A determination must be made as to how and when the document will be declassified, and the document marked accordingly. Executive Order 13526 describes the reasons and requirements for information to be classified and declassified (Part 1). Individual agencies within the government develop guidelines for what information is classified and at what level.

The former decision is original classification. A great majority of classified documents are created by derivative classification. For example, if one piece of information, taken from a secret document, is put into a document along with 100 pages of unclassified information, the document, as a whole, will be secret. Proper (but often ignored) rules stipulate that every paragraph will bear a classification marking of (U) for Unclassified, (C) for Confidential, (S) for Secret, and (TS) for Top Secret. Therefore, in this example, only one paragraph will have the (S) marking. If the page containing that paragraph is double-sided, the page should be marked SECRET on top and bottom of both sides.

A review of classification policies by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence aimed at developing a uniform classification policy and a single classification guide that could be used by the entire U.S. intelligence community found significant interagency differences that impaired cooperation and performance. The initial ODNI review, completed in January 2008, said in part, "The definitions of 'national security' and what constitutes 'intelligence'—and thus what must be classified—are unclear. ... Many interpretations exist concerning what constitutes harm or the degree of harm that might result from improper disclosure of the information, often leading to inconsistent or contradictory guidelines from different agencies. ... There appears to be no common understanding of classification levels among the classification guides reviewed by the team, nor any consistent guidance as to what constitutes 'damage,' 'serious damage,' or 'exceptionally grave damage' to national security. ... There is wide variance in application of classification levels."

The review recommended that original classification authorities should specify clearly the basis for classifying information, for example, whether the sensitivity derives from the actual content of the information, the source, the method by which it was analyzed, or the date or location of its acquisition. Current policy requires that the classifier be "able" to describe the basis for classification but not that he or she in fact do so.

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