The string of revelations that classified government documents have been found in the homes of former President Donald Trump, President Joseph Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence has raised questions about the security of the nation’s secrets.
It has also raised questions about the government’s system of keeping secrets — how it works, why it fails and how the rules are applied to top government officials.
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Grid connected with former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin and reviewed government reports to help answer questions about the government’s classification system.
Paper and ink are a part of the process for the government’s most secret records — those involving spies and signals intelligence derived from intercepted communications such as wiretaps, also known as signals intelligence or SIGINT.
The transmission of classified information under the Sensitive Access Programs, or SAPs, is among the most poorly understood parts of our classification system, said former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin. These records are not accessible online.
“With the most sensitive docs, especially fragile SIGINT and the most sensitive human sources (our spies), these will usually be hand-carried hard copy docs shown in ‘read, sign, return’ mode,” McLaughlin said, meaning the recipient would review the paper document, acknowledge with signature and hand it back.
“[T]he Sensitive Access Programs (SAPs) … are truly there to protect information whose loss would jeopardize a life or a unique collection method that has taken years to develop, that no one else has and that you would lose if it was revealed.”
The more secret the records are, the fewer people have digital access to them, McLaughlin said.
“To access digital copies of classified docs, you have to have digital credentials — passwords and such — that show you possess the clearances that authorize access to the material,” he said. “The more sensitive the material, the fewer such clearances are granted.”
Yes. It is not uncommon for classified intelligence information to appear in published media reports. However, even after it is publicly disclosed, the government still considers it classified.
No. Each paragraph of a classified document is typically coded to reflect whether it contains classified information. While the document would be marked classified, unclassified portions may later be disclosed.
The government will sometimes respond to FOIA requests by releasing unclassified segments of otherwise classified documents while redacting the information that is classified.
No. In classification, context matters. Even if a record does not directly contain classified material, a document may be classified because its author read classified material in the process of drafting it and believes that information is reflected in the document.
According to McLaughlin, “It is fairly easy, say, as an analyst, to pin a classification on a written product because your view is informed and shaped by reading a large volume of classified, even sensitive, material that you do not cite directly in your assessment. Or sometimes by who you are sending it to (the President, the Secretary of Defense).”
In certain cases, officials are authorized to take classified records to properly secured areas of their homes — but only if they have an authorized means of securing it and protecting it there, McLaughlin said. That’s an expensive privilege and is generally reserved for senior officials.
“Usually this means a room in the house that has been turned into a kind of SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility),” he said. Sometimes a combination lock on the door or, at minimum, a strong safe. This usually comes with secure communication gear (phone, fax, computer).”
Top-ranking secret keepers such as the president, vice president and CIA leadership do not do all their own document handling when they leave public office.
To figure out what happened with the records in the cases of Trump and Biden, McLaughlin said, “I would start with who packed things up and how did they get to where they were found.”
“When I left CIA, someone packed up my office, and classified or internal material of any sort went to a secure archive,” he said. “Books and souvenirs, awards, memorabilia went home with me. I can get access to the classified records, but I have to request that, wait until it is retrieved and view it only in classified spaces.”
“I don’t know, but I think so,” McLaughlin said. “The White House always felt to me like one big SCIF. So if the president wants to read the PDB in bed, he/she probably can.”
Legally, the president has ultimate control over decisions about classification and declassification of records.
The United States government makes tens of millions of “classification decisions” — decision as to whether a particular record contains classified information — every year. These are divided into two categories: original classifications and derivative classifications.
An original classification is when a designated government official recognizes the existence of an entirely new secret and deems it classified. A derivative classification occurs when a new record is created and contains some reference to that information, even oblique or contextual.
While any government agency may have classified records, the vast majority come from agencies whose work involves national security matters, like the CIA and the Departments of Justice, State and Defense.
Sometimes. There are three levels of classification — Confidential, Secret and Top Secret — and physical records are affixed with cover sheets that are colored according to their level.
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