One of the easiest ways that governments can exert control over us is by withholding information from each and every one of us. A nation of people that is oblivious of facts, data and information – material that we should know about – is a nation which is definitively asleep. A nation wallowing in ignorance. A nation that is controlled. To see how very easy it is to keep us in the dark, take careful note of all the following. We should all be very concerned when it comes to the matter of how easy it is to withhold information that we should know about. It is very important to note that when it comes to the nature of classified information that may be denied to us, there are varying levels of secrecy and classification within numerous agencies and offices of government.
Behind closed doors, a significant amount of thought goes into what specific information should be classified at one particular level vs. another level. The primary issue is to what extent, or whether, such data has a bearing on the national security of the nation. Of course, this inevitably provokes worries that material that we, the public, should have access to may be deliberately placed at higher level of classification than is actually warranted – thus preventing us from seeing certain data that specific agencies and powerful figures have no desire for us to see. And, possibly, for multiple reasons. Then, there are those operations and information that are deemed so sensitive that the fall under a category called Special Access Programs, or SAPs. It is within the domain of SAPs that much of the control of data exists. You will learn more about them, shortly.
Within the United States, issues relative to the nation security of the nation are, essentially, identified by what are known as Executive Orders of the President. As EOs show, in the worlds of government, the military, and the intelligence community there is a trio of particular tiers of secrecy. They are, specifically, Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential. We’ll focus our attention on the most important level of classification – which is, of course, Top Secret. The U.S. Government defines Top Secret in the following fashion: “Top Secret shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.”
As for the Secret level, it is described as any and all data that, if improperly placed into the public domain, or illegally and clandestinely shared with representatives of potentially hostile nations, could cause what is termed “serious damage” to the security of the United States and its people. Confidential is the lowest category of all, but, even so, that does not mean that the material which falls into that category is of little or no consequence. It is still of great significance. Executive Order 13526 – which was passed on December 29, 2009 by President Barack Obama – makes that abundantly apparent. “Significant damage” could be the result of the leaking of Confidential information and files to the likes of North Korea, Russia, Iran, and China.
When it comes to the matter of the specific issues that Executive Order 13526 overseas, it covers, as the U.S. Government carefully notes: “(a) Army, Navy, and Air Force strategies and programs; (b) the current state of U.S. military capabilities; (c) information on overseas – and potentially – enemy nations; (d) the means by which the U.S. Government secures intelligence-based data; € the names and locations of both domestic and foreign covert sources of material; (f) the ways American can defend its nuclear arsenals; and (g) matters relative to one of the biggest, potential problems facing the free world today: weapons of mass destruction.”
Despite what many might assume, it is most certainly not the case that all documentation is eventually placed into the public domain. Yes, massive amounts of once-classified material is routinely released every year – whether by the Government itself, or as a result of Freedom of Information requests from journalists and the public. But, huge numbers of highly classified material never sees the light of day. And, in all likelihood, never will. Executive Order 13526 makes it clear that when it comes to revealing highly classified material via legal means, “the original classification authority shall establish a specific date or event for declassification based on the duration of the national security sensitivity of the information.”
When, on December 29, 2009, President Obama passed EO 13526, he said that, “No information may remain classified indefinitely.” That is true. On certain occasions, however, problems may occur when agency staff cannot fully agree upon which material should be released and when. Under such circumstances, EO 13526 provides the following words: “Information shall be marked for declassification 10 years from the date of the original decision, unless the original classification authority otherwise determines that the sensitivity of the information requires that it be marked for declassification for up to 25 years from the date of the original decision.”
A careful study of Section 3.3 of EO 13526 is critical to understanding the means and ways by which files can be held back from public and media scrutiny. It notes the following: “all classified records that (1) are more than 25 years old and (2) have been determined to have permanent historical value shall be automatically declassified whether or not the records have been reviewed.”
Nevertheless, that twenty-five-years-long period is not the final word on this issue. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. If certain documentation is deemed to be so highly classified, and so important that its release might cause major damage to the security of the United States and its people, then there is a piece of legislation that allows for files, material and data to be withheld, in theory, for many, many years. But, there are ways and means behind this particular legislation.
Within the pages of Executive Order 13526, there is a certain clause which makes it very clear that the final word is not actually the final word, after all. It makes it clear when circumstances dictate it necessary, there are provisions that allow for the continued denial to declassify records – almost forever, even. According to the government’s laws, this continued denial covers a wide variety of areas. They include: “U.S. military technology,” “sources and methods of gathering intelligence data;” “safety issues surrounding the president and his staff;” “plans for war;” and “relations with overseas nations,” whether they are our allies or our potential foes. If such highly-classified information does get leaked into the public domain, then action can be taken via the use of the Espionage Act of 1917 – which I will address in pt. 2 of this article.