Nov 15, 2022 I Nick Redfern

A World of Government Secrets: How Hidden Things Can Often Stay Hidden

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. It’s almost as if we have been rendered into a situation where ignorance is bliss is the word of law. 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.”

(Nick Redfern) Defining top secret

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. 

(Nick Redfern) Freedom of Information

On December 7, 1915, then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, in his State of Union address, said: “There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue.” President Wilson added: “I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment and feel that in doing so I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out. They are not many, but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government, they have sought to pry into every confidential transaction of the Government in order to serve interests alien to our own. It is possible to deal with these things very effectually. I need not suggest the terms in which they may be dealt with.”

And, thus was born the groundwork for the creation of the Espionage Act. Although the Act itself dates back to 1917, it is still utilized to this very day - the Edward Snowden affair being a perfect, relatively recent example. In addition, it was used in the affair of Bradley Manning, who, in 2010, was serving with the U.S. military and who secretly provided Julian Assange’s Wikileaks with documentation that was still classified. Then, in 2012, John Kiriakou, formerly an officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, was charged under the terms of the Espionage Act. The reason: he shared classified materials with news reporters relative to matters concerning al-Qaeda. Now, it’s time to take a careful look at the Freedom of Information Act. While, in theory, it is designed to allow American citizens access to government, military, and intelligence files, that doesn’t always prove to be the case. The U.S. Government says of the FOIA: “Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement. The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. As Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have all recognized, the FOIA is a vital part of our democracy.

“The FOIA provides that when processing requests, agencies should withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law. Agencies should also consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever they determine that full disclosure is not possible and they should take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information. The Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice is responsible for issuing government-wide guidance on the FOIA as part of its responsibilities to encourage all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the FOIA.” It was signed into existence on July 4, 1966 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Freedom of Information Act is an important piece of legislation when it comes to the matter of the public’s right to know – on all matters of relevance to issues that impact on our lives, and particularly so in relation to widespread control of the public. There are, however, various clauses within the FOIA that permit the widespread withholding of files, if such a thing is seen as warranted and justified. Indeed, there are no less than nine exemptions that allow for the denial of files under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. They are as follows: classified information for national defense or foreign policy; internal personnel rules and practices; information that is exempt under other laws; trade secrets; and confidential business information; inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters that are protected by legal privileges
personnel and medical files; law enforcement records or information; information concerning bank supervision; geological and geophysical information.

What all of this tells us is that the flow of information that might surface under the FOIA can, at times, be reined in – and significantly so, too.Freedom of Information Acts exist in numerous other countries, too. The long list includes the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Uruguay. In fact, the overall number of nations that, today, have Freedom of Information Acts, is in excess of seventy. It’s notable, however, that the acts of all those nations have certain clauses built into them that allow for the non-release of government papers – if such is perceived as being necessary, such as national security. And, just like the United States, all of the above-nations have varying levels of security classification. As just one example of many, the U.K. has six levels. They are:

Unclassified, Protected, Restricted, Confidential, Secret, and, finally, Top Secret. Then there is the matter of what are known within government circles as Special Access Programs, or SAPs. In essence they are highly classified projects that are buried so deeply that not even the U.S. Congress know much about them – if, indeed, anything at all. There is another important issue to note when it comes to Special Access Programs: just because a person may have a Top Secret clearance, it does not mean that he or she automatically has the “magic key” that opens just about every door in government, every secure facility, and every well-guarded underground bunker. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. On the matter of Special Access Programs, the concept of “need to know” is as significant as one’s level of security clearance. Let’s say that, purely hypothetically, there is a secret Special Access Program that is sitting on the smoking-gun that would reveal the full story of the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. 

(Nick Redfern) Special Access Programs

As for SAPs: “John Smith” and “Bill Jones” may both have Top Secret clearances. Smith is tasked with hiding the truth of the death of the president. Jones, however, is an expert in North Korea’s plans to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. There would be no need for Jones to have access to the JFK-themed Special Access because it has no bearing on his work and expertise in the field of North Korea’s military. That both men have identical security clearances has no bearing, at all, when it comes to SAPs. In fact, it is wholly irrelevant. It all comes down to what a person needs to know to do their job, or, more specifically, what they don’t need to know. That is the way in which secrets are kept. In other words, the control that oversees what we can know, and what we can’t be told, doesn’t just apply to the public and the media. It also applies to the government itself. 

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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