Science

Classified: Keeping the secrets of the country close

Documents spread on the carpet at Mar-a-Lago, their classification marks clearly visible, are tiny drops in a tsunami of secrets kept by the US government.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked John Fitzpatrick, who managed the flow of classified documents at both the Obama and Trump White Houses, “Do you have any idea how many classified documents there are?”

“It’s really unknown,” he replied.

Fitzpatrick said the last reliable calculations were made when most classified documents existed only on paper. “They were in millions of documents a year,” he said.

“Has it become easier or harder to classify information?” asked Martin.

“As a practical matter, this has become easier. The proliferation of classified computer networks provides an environment where the proliferation of classified material increases.”

All the subsequent alarms of the 9/11 attacks and terrorist conspiracies against the homeland brought with them an increase of classification, which also worries the man in charge of keeping secrets, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, who testified to Congress that overclassification was a national There is security problem. Earlier this year, she wrote, “the shortcomings in the current classification system undermine our national security,” by making it difficult to share information with allies and the public.

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CBS News


“It’s a pretty arresting statement,” Martin said. “A system designed to keep national security a secret is undermining national security?”

“I agree with that,” said Fitzpatrick. “There’s a culture of classification: protecting secrets is always better than releasing secrets. It’s a false binary, but people do it.”

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said, “Most privacy isn’t about real damage. It’s about preventing one kind of embarrassment or another by the government.”

For the past 35 years, the National Security Archive has used the Freedom of Information Act to hide loose boxes on pre-classified document boxes. “We’ve probably seen 10 to 20 million pages of declassified documents from the US government over the years,” Blanton said.

The walls are lined with some of his favourites. He showed Martin one: “This is a piece of internal CIA email about the torture program, and specifically about how he destroyed the videotape of the water boarding.”

If tapes of waterboarding CIA-captured al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah ever became public, the memo said, “they would look terrifying to us; it would be ‘catastrophic’ for us.”

“This document would remain classified indefinitely under the protection of CIA sources and methods,” Blanton said.

“Do you file Freedom of Information Act requests on a daily basis?”

“About 1,500 per year.”

“How many people out there who can classify documents?”

“About 5 million.”

Today’s classification system evolved from the secret project to build an atomic bomb, arguably the biggest mystery ever. The project’s lead, Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, later wrote that he was keeping it a secret from “the Germans,” “the Japanese,” “the Russians,” “all other nations,” and “those who would interfere.” In which Congress was also involved.

“What General Groves created was a big bang in the national security classification system, and that universe is still expanding,” Blanton said.

The three basic levels of classification are confidential, secret, and top secret. Confidential information would “harm” national security upon exit; The secret will cause “serious damage”; and the top secret “Exceptionally Serious Damage.”

Beyond top secret is SCI (which stands for Sensitive Compartment Information, also known as Special Access Program). “He is considered the government’s closest secret,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Do you have any idea how many special Access programs there are?” asked Martin.

“After all, you’re talking about hundreds,” he replied.

Each particular access program has its own code name. Here’s a one-time top secret memo instructing that “satellite photos should be kept in a separate compartment called the talent-keyhole.” Such a document would be kept in a room called the SCIF, or Sensitive Compartment Information Facility. “There are physical standards to lock them in, to scare them, and to soundproof them,” Fitzpatrick said.

The most famous SCIF is the White House Situation Room, where the president meets with his national security advisers. All presidential libraries are equipped with SCIF, but there is no SCIF in Mar-a-Largo.

Martin asked, “Does the President of the United States have a security clearance?”

“The answer is no,” Fitzpatrick said. “The President derives his authority from his constitutional authorities to view any classified information.”

“Is it assumed that the president needs to know absolutely everything?”

“it is.”

“Can the President order a document to be declassified?”

“Yes. The President’s authority to classify or declassify information is derived from his own constitutional authority.”

When he was president, Donald Trump made public a transcript of his phone call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky to help dig up the dirt on Hunter Biden. All of its original classification markings have been cut out and clearly marked “Unclassified”.

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Declassified reports on President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he asked for “a favor” in return for military aid.

CBS News


Compare this with the documents spread on the floor by the FBI after the discovery of Mar-a-Largo.

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Some confidential documents were found at Trump’s residence in Florida.

Justice Department


“There’s no line through those marks,” Blanton said. “It’s not a stamp saying, ‘This was issued on X-date, anyone’s right.’ Even when the president says, ‘I want something unclassified,’ there’s a whole process it has to go through.”

Most documents are not declassified until they are sent to a presidential library, such as the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, where all the papers of his administration are stored – and where, for more than half a century, Later, some still remain classified.

Blanton recently asked the George W. Bush Library to make public the notes of the president’s preparatory sessions for his first meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2001: “Great moment in history. You know, it was 22 years ago.” It is, when Putin was still our friend. Maybe today we will do some good in addressing Putin’s grievances, and maybe do something different from this current tragedy in Ukraine that Putin started.”

The National Security Archive filed its FOIA request in January of this year. “The nice people at the George W. Bush Library in Dallas said, ‘Sorry to tell you, Mr. Blanton, but it will take them 12 years to get around this.'”

Martin asked, “Which side is winning? The forces of classification, or the forces of declassification?”

“Oh, the forces of classification have long prevailed!” Blanton replied.


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Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Lauren Barnello.

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