Last week, the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s private residence in Mar-a-Lago for classified documents they believe Trump took office. The unsealing of the FBI’s search warrant revealed a potential case against former President Trump for mishandling classified information, including nuclear weapons records.
These aren’t the only documents Trump reportedly brought from the Oval Office to his private residence. The National Archives and Records Administration reported in February that, under the Presidential Records Act, it had to retrieve a number of White House documents that Trump was holding at Mar-a-Lago.
But what exactly is a classified document and what is it used for? When (and why) is a document declassified and who can declassify it? Here’s more information about the government’s multi-level process for protecting top-secret information.
Read about Trump’s potential legal danger:Kentucky Senator Rand Paul Wants Espionage Act Repeal
What is classified information?
Classified information, or classified national security information, refers to documents or other intelligence material that the government has deemed sensitive and therefore a potential threat to national security if released in an unauthorized manner.
What are the three levels of classified information?
According to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the three main levels of classified information are:
- Top secret: the information would cause “exceptionally serious damage to national security” if released without authorization.
- Secret: information which, if not disclosed without authorization, could cause “serious” damage to national security.
- Confidential: information whose unauthorized disclosure is likely to endanger national security.
What are the conditions of access to classified information?
Many federal employees of all agencies have access to varying levels of classified information.
Once you are designated by an official with the original classification authority, you must receive a security clearance through an Executive Office of the President (EOP) security officer. You must also sign a non-disclosure agreement. Security clearance involves an extensive background check that delves into your personal history, according to the United States Department of Justice.
What are the types of classified documents?
The Senate Intelligence Committee specifies that the types of documents that may be considered for classification are:
- Plans, weapons or military operations;
- Vulnerabilities or capabilities of national security systems, facilities, projects or plans;
- Information on foreign governments;
- Intelligence activities (including special activities) or sources or methods of intelligence
- Foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States;
- Scientific, technological or economic matters relating to national security;
- United States government programs for safeguarding nuclear materials or facilities;
- Confidential sources;
- Other categories of national security-related information that require protection from unauthorized disclosure, as determined by the President or by heads of agencies or other officials to whom the President has delegated originating classification authority .
What is a sample classified document?
A famous example of a classified document or group of documents is that of the Pentagon Papers, whose unauthorized publication in the early 1970s by Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst for the Secretary of Defense, upset the American political climate.
The documents, given to the Washington Post and the New York Times, revealed a classified study of the Vietnam War. This information falls under the classification “plans, weapons or military operations”.
Mar-à-Lago:The FBI seized top secret documents but gave no clear indication of what they are
Who files the documents?
The power to classify documents was listed in an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. The executive order defines this power as a “classification authority” and grants this power to:
- The President and the Vice President
- Heads of agencies and officials designated by the president
- Other U.S. government officials conferred authority on agency heads
The order clarifies that agencies have a responsibility to limit subordinates’ access to only classified information they need to do their jobs and to ensure that subordinates have a continuing need.
How long do classified documents remain classified?
It depends. The downgrading rules are as follows:
- Upon classification, the originating classification authority sets a date for declassification when it believes the sensitivity of the national security threat will have passed. On this date the file is automatically declassified.
- There is an exception to the above time limit if the classification reveals “a confidential human source or human intelligence source or key design concepts for weapons of mass destruction”.
- If the person who classified the file cannot determine an appropriate date for automatic declassification, the file will be classified for 10 years, or 25 years if it is particularly sensitive.
- No information can be classified indefinitely.
Why do we classify documents?
Documents are classified for national security purposes.
In his Executive Order outlining the process for classifying and declassifying important government documents, President Obama acknowledged the importance of the free flow of information and transparency, before stating that certain documents require a level of secrecy in order to protect the American public, homeland security, our democratic systems, and our relations with other foreign nations.