Wed
May 17 2017
01:09 am

So, let's say there is a message being passed around the White House that says the Queen of England is wearing pink panties with purple hearts and butterflies today. What might that message be classified and why?

A lot of folks might think that such mundane information does not need or deserve to be classified. They would be wrong. They would be very wrong.

Take a look at that first couple of sentences again. There are a couple of ways for the White House to have that information. All of the ways that come immediately to my mind would result in the information being classified.

The lowest classification would occur if the Queen herself called and informed the State Department of the specifics of her daily wardrobe. We would immediately be suspicious of her mental stability but we would want to keep that information to ourselves. It would probably result in a SECRET classification because we would not want to embarrass such an important ally.

If OTOH, we had an inside person that was getting that information to us, that would probably be classified TOP SECRET CODEWORD. If if were discovered by the British that we had that capability, it would be hugely embarrassing to the U.S. and, it would put that individual's life and/or freedom in certain danger. If a hostile nation discovered that information, they could use it to blackmail us.

There is also the scenario wherein we have an electronic monitoring system that gives us the intel. A bug, or bugs, that recorded and transmitted audio and video surreptitiously. That would be classified TOP SECRET CODEWORD CODEWORD CODEWORD, EYES ONLY, BURN BEFORE READING, CODEWORD.. Our relationship with the U.K. would be irreparably damaged by the revelation of such interest and ability and actions.

The top level of classification would be if Spain or France or Israel or some other ally had the intelligence ability and had shared the information with us. The classification would be higher than most top clearances were cleared for. If that information/source was revealed, it could destroy our relations with both nations and could have a seriously negative effect on the workings of NATO.

The thing is, I don't remember ever getting a briefing that explained all of this stuff to me. I had some pretty damn serious clearances and some pretty damn serious access and while they did tell me what each level of classification meant, it was not necessarily stated in a way that was real to me.

If someone is saying that it is stupid for something to be classified or it is no big deal if a certain bit of information slips out, they do not understand the "why". I have seen classified weather reports. If you do not know the "why", declassifying information is a very dangerous thing to do. If you can't understand that, you really should not have access to the information. You do not have to understand it fully as long as you understand that revealing anything can have unintended consequences.

Information, intelligence in the vernacular, can be and is gleaned from an incredibly wide variety of sources. The information gleaned may well be the most mundane you can imagine and still be a means of divulging the identity or capabilities of a valued source. That removal of the cloak of secrecy almost inevitably renders the source useless for further operations and stands a strong chance of decreasing their chances at continued existence.

POTUS is the ultimate authority for classifications and clearances for information in this nation. But that authority does not cover information that other nations have classified. It does not cover information provided under the auspices of treaties signed with other nations. It also may not indemnify POTUS or their assigns from legal culpability if the release of intel is deemed to be ill-advised or carelessly done.

I have heard many criticisms of the classification system. Most often that it is overused, that too many things are classified for too long. I can't swear the criticisms are wrong in all cases. I can swear that rewarding someone for providing intel crucial to the security of our nation with a good backstabbing isn't going to be good for us in the long run.

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bizgrrl's picture

Remember When Trump Said

Remember When Trump Said Clinton Couldn't Be 'Trusted' With Classified Info?

R. Neal's picture

Great explanation. Normal

Great explanation. Normal people could probably think of a number of reasons why even a weather report would be classified. Trump is not normal.

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