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Security Clearance Seriousness

Ace continues the discussion about the revelation that a State Department memo showed Valerie Plame Wilson’s status as a CIA operative to be classified “Secret.” He links to a FAS description of the classificiation system and concludes,

“Top Secret” is nothing of the sort. Low-level FBI agents have Top Secret classification.

Genuine secret information is not allowed to be so broadly read. The real secret classification system is codeword-clearance.

Pat Moynihan talked about this on 60 Minutes, complaining about the overclassification bias in the government. He said, flat out, that Top Secret information was nothing of the sort; real secrets were classified by codewords.

What are those codewords?, he was asked.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “The codewords themselves are secret.”

While I don’t disagree that things are often overclassified, as I noted in my discussion of the issue yesterday morning, it goes too far to say that “Secret” information is not worth protecting let alone that “Top Secret” is barely sensitive.

From the FAS discussion:

Examples of Secret information were given in EO 11652. Secret information, as defined in that EO, “could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security,” and examples were stated to include “disruption of foreign relations significantly affecting the national security; significant impairment of a program or policy directly related to the national security; revelation of significant military plans or intelligence operations; and compromise of significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security.” Examples of Secret information given in current NSC regulations are “disruption of foreign relations significantly affecting the national security,” “significant impairment of a program or policy directly related to the national security,” “revelation of significant military plans or intelligence operations,” and “compromise of significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security.”

I had a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance as an Army officer. That meant I could easily be read into a codeword protected program. Clearance ain’t a library card, though. Even “Secret” information is released only on a need-to-know basis.

“Top Secret” stuff is usually actually pretty sensitive. Goodness, my artillery unit’s Cold War battle plans, which showed the location of my launchers, were only “Secret.”

If Valerie Plame really was a covert operative and Karl Rove, Scooter Libby or someone else got that information through a classified document or briefing and then released that information to the press, it’s a serious matter. Jim Henley provides the best reasons to think that the CIA still considered Plame to in fact be a covert agent. Whether she actually was covert in any meaningful sense–let alone whether Rove or Libby found out via a classified memo–are issues yet to be adjudicated.

Ace’s aside is rather amusing, though:

PS: The stuff Sandy Berger stole from the archives? Codeword-clearance. The press didn’t seem particularly interested in his theft (and admitted DESTRUCTION!) of original copies of genuine secret documents from the archives.

There is that.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. capt joe says:

    Yes, in each code word, you need to have a briefing and sign docs.

    A humorous point is after you collect a lot of codewords, you start to forgot what info they covered. And since you can’t write any of it down because having a cheat sheet of codewords and what they are is a major compartmentalization violation.

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  2. DC Loser says:

    The codeword digraphs are not classified. You can write those down.

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  3. applebutter says:

    provides the best reasons to think that the CIA still considered Plame to in fact be a covert agent. Whether she actually was covert in any meaningful sense–let alone whether Rove or Libby found out via a classified memo–are issues yet to be adjudicated.

    Remember the fact that it was the CIA who requested the Justice department to investigate the leak. This is evidence enough that the CIA considered the leak serious. If Plame was not occupying a sensitive position the CIA would never have requested a criminal investigation.

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  4. DC Loser says:

    Unless one believes the CIA is the enemy.

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  5. applebutter says:

    Unless one believes the CIA is the enemy.

    Certainly Bush didn’t think so–he gave the guy who was the head of the CIA at the time the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for crissakes!

    But he also gave one to the incompetent cur, Paul Bremmer, as well, so one has to question Bush’s judgment.

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