FAS | Government Secrecy | Library || Index | Search | Join FAS



Security Classification of Information: Table of Contents

Chapter 7.
CLASSIFICATION LEVELS

INTRODUCTION

A classification level must be assigned to information when that information is determined to be classified. A classification level indicates the relative importance of classified information to national security and thereby determines the specific security requirements applicable to that information. Clearly defined classification levels are essential to an effective classification system.1

The U.S. classification of information system has three classification levels -- Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential -- which are defined in EO 12356.2 Those levels are used both for NSI and atomic energy information (RD and FRD). Section 1.1(a) of EO 12356 states that:

(a) National Security Information (hereinafter "classified information") shall be classified at one of the following three levels:
Section 1.1(b) of EO 12356 states that "except as otherwise provided by statute, no other terms shall be used to identify classified information."

Previous chapters that discussed classification principles emphasized the need to balance the risks of information disclosure (damage to national security) against the benefits of having the information unclassified. If disclosure of information causes net damage to the nation, then that information should at least be classified at the Confidential level. However, there is very little available guidance to help determine which classification level should be assigned to classified information (i.e., whether it should be classified as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret).

The appropriate classification level would be expected to usually be determined by the information disclosure risks because those risks largely determine the magnitude of the net damage that could be caused by such disclosure.* Generally, the benefits of information disclosure are expected to be on the order of magnitude of the Confidential level of damage. Therefore, the difficult balancing situations will usually occur when information disclosure damage is at the Confidential level because then the benefits and risks are expected to be about equal. When information disclosure risks are at the serious or extremely grave levels associated with Secret or Top Secret information, respectively, then the classification levels would usually be expected to be determined solely by those damages. It would be rare that the information disclosure benefits would approximate those significantly higher serious or extremely grave damage levels. The following sections of this chapter provide discussions of the three classification levels, especially with respect to scientific or technical information. Principles are proposed for assigning classification levels.

CLASSIFICATION LEVEL DEFINITIONS AND EXAMPLES

Top Secret Information

EO 12356 states that the Top Secret classification level "shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."3

It is of interest, prior to discussing specific examples of what might be Top Secret information, to examine the definitions of some of the terms used by the EO to describe Top Secret information. The key terms and their definitions are as follows:4

The last EO to provide examples of Top Secret information whose disclosure "could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security" was EO 11652 of March 1972.5 Examples of "exceptionally grave damage" included in that EO were "armed hostilities against the United States or its allies; disruption of foreign relations vitally affecting the national security; the compromise of vital defense plans or complex cryptologic and communications intelligence systems; the revelation of sensitive intelligence operations; and the disclosure of scientific or technical developments vital to national security."6 Subsequent EOs have not provided examples of what constitutes Top Secret information.

Examples of Top Secret information are currently given in National Security Council (NSC) regulations concerning FOIA requests for classified documents. Those examples are "armed hostilities against the United States or its allies," "disruption of foreign relations vitally affecting the national security," "the compromise of vital national defense plans or complex cryptologic and communications intelligence systems," "the revelation of sensitive intelligence operations," and "the disclosure of scientific or technological developments vital to the national security."7 Those examples in NSC regulations are the same those used in EO 11652 and are also found in the DoD Information Security Program Regulations.8 A 1964 DoD instruction provided more-detailed examples of information that might require Top Secret classification. Some of those examples are as follows:

There is very little classified atomic energy information (RD or FRD) that is assigned a Top Secret classification level by the DOE. Most RD and FRD are classified at either the Confidential or Secret levels. Although some other federal agencies (e.g., DoD) use the Top Secret classification level much more frequently than does DOE, within the entire U.S. Government only 4% of the original classification decisions made in FY 1991 were assigned a Top Secret classification level.*

Secret Information

The Secret classification level "shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security."10

The definitions of most of the important terms used by EO 12356 to describe the Secret classification level were given earlier. Only the following definition needs to be given here:

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."12 Again, the NSC examples are the same as the EO 11652 examples and the same as in the DoD Information Security Program Regulations.13 A 1964 DoD instruction provided more-detailed examples of information that might require Secret classification. Some of those examples are as follows:

The distinction between Secret and Top Secret information appears to be that Top Secret information is "vital," whereas Secret information is only "significant." See below in this chapter for a further discussion of the difference between Secret and Top Secret information.

Of interest with respect to DOE classification matters are some examples of Secret information given in a 1945 Manhattan Engineering District (MED) Security Manual.15 Some of those examples are as follows.

Confidential Information The Confidential classification level "shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security." All of the important terms used by the EO to describe the Confidential classification level have been defined earlier in this chapter.

EO 11652 provided no examples of Confidential information. The NSC regulations give no examples for the Confidential classification category other than to state that "it must be reasonably expected that unauthorized disclosure of the [Confidential] material would cause damage to the national security."17 DoD guidance gives the following examples of Confidential information:

Earlier DoD guidance gave the following examples of Confidential information:

The MED Security Manual mentioned above also gave examples of what constituted Confidential information.20

A major distinction between Secret and Confidential information in the MED appeared to be that Secret documents gave the entire description of a process or of key equipment, etc., whereas Confidential documents revealed only fragmentary information (not the critical information). Also, Secret information pertained to details of critical steps or process parameters, whereas Confidential information pertained to similar parameters for noncritical steps or process parameters.

Table 7.1 contains examples of the effects of disclosure of Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information for several types of NSI. These examples were summarized from information given previously in this chapter.

PRINCIPLES FOR ASSIGNING CLASSIFICATION LEVELS

General Principles

The more important that an item of information is to national security (the more damage that would be caused by its disclosure), the higher should be the classification level of that information. Determining the net damage to the nation caused by disclosure of information was described in Chapter 6. The magnitude of that damage will determine the classification level that should be assigned to the information under consideration for classification.

The amount of damage caused by disclosure of information will be the primary determinant of the classification level to be assigned to that information, but the imminence of that damage might also be a factor in determining its classification level. That is, the shorter the time period between the time that the information is known to an adversary and the time that the adversary can use that information to our detriment, the higher should be the classification level of that information.

Table 7.1. Examples of the effects of disclosure of Confidential, Secret,

and Top Secret information for several types of NSI information

Type of information

Classification level

 

Confidential

Secret

Top Secret

Diplomatic information

Damage to foreign relations

Disruption of foreign relations significantly affecting the national security

Disruption of foreign relations vitally affecting national security

Military or defense plans

Revelation of strength of military forces in the U.S. and overseas; technical information used for training, maintenance, and inspection of classified munitions of war; or performance characteristics, test data, design, and production data on munitions of war

Revelation of significant military plans

Compromise of vital national defense plans

Intelligence information

 

Revelation of significant intelligence operations

Compromise of complex cryptologic and communications intelligence systems

Revelation of sensitive intelligence operations.

Scientific or technical information

 

Compromise of significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security

Disclosure of scientific or technological developments vital to national security

Miscellaneous

 

Significant impairment of a program or policy directly related to the national security

 

The extent of dissemination of classified information might also be a factor in determining that information's classification level. The probability of unauthorized disclosure of classified information increases with an increase in the number of persons who know that information (see Appendix G). Consequently, it might not be reasonable to assign a Top Secret classification level to information that, for example, is expected to be given to 10,000 persons. Such extensive dissemination would proportionately increase the probability of unauthorized disclosure of that information. Therefore, the expected extent of dissemination of classified information should probably be a factor in determining the classification level to be assigned to that information.

Classification Because of Effort Required to Get the Information

Sometimes, as was discussed in earlier chapters, information such as scientific or technical information is classified even though an adversary could reasonably be expected to get that same information through its own, straightforward, independent efforts. This information is classified to make an adversary use its resources to get this information, resources that it might otherwise use to our detriment. This type of information does not represent any scientific or technological breakthrough. This type of information can be acquired by competent technical persons using equipment that is readily available or easily constructed. Since such information is relatively easily available and since there is very little, if anything, that can be done to prevent an adversary from obtaining this information through its own efforts, the consequences of an adversary's getting this information can hardly be termed serious enough to warrant a classification level of Secret or higher. Therefore, this type of information should generally not be classified higher than Confidential.

Reasonable Doubt About Classification Level

When there is reasonable doubt about the appropriate classification level for NSI, EO 12356 requires that the information be safeguarded at the higher level pending a determination by an original classification authority.21 However, since the current discussion is about original classification authorities determining classification levels, it is not clear what an original classifier should do if there is uncertainty about the classification level. The strong implication is that the information should be classified at the higher level until more details are obtained on the damage that could be caused by disclosure of the information. Since there are no other presumptions favoring a lower classification level,* this would seem to be a reasonable principle.

    * In Chapter 6, reasons were given for presuming that non-atomic energy information should remain unclassified if there was reasonable doubt about whether it should be classified as NSI.

CLASSIFICATION LEVELS FOR SCIENTIFIC
OR TECHNICAL INFORMATION

Top Secret Scientific or Technical Information

According to examples provided by current NSC regulations (see above), only scientific or technological developments vital to the national security should be assigned the Top Secret classification level. Disclosure of this information "reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."3 Vital is defined as follows:

    Vital--of the utmost importance; essential to the continued existence, vigor, efficiency, independence, or value of something expressed or implied; taking priority in consideration over other factors or elements.4

The other key words used to describe the Top Secret classification level were defined earlier.

The 1964 DoD classification instructions referred to earlier in this chapter contained an example for Top Secret scientific or technical information, which was as follows:

    Vital information concerning radically new and extremely important equipment (munitions of war), such as nuclear weapons, atomic weapons stockpile data, and any other munitions of comparable importance the scientific or technological development aspects of which are vital to national defense.22

It would be expected that only rarely would classified scientific or technological information be place in the Top Secret level.

Secret Scientific or Technical Information

According to examples provided by current NSC regulations (see above), only "significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security" should be classified at the Secret level. "Significant" has the following definition:4

    Significant--having meaning; full of import; having or likely to have influence or effect; deserving to be considered; important; weighty; notable.

The previously cited 1964 DoD instructions on information to be classified at the Secret level indicated that the following scientific and technical information should be classified at the Secret level:

    Particulars of scientific or research projects which incorporate new technological developments or techniques having direct military applications of vital importance to the national defense.

    Specific details or data relating to new materials or important modifications of materials which reveal significant military advances or new technological developments having direct military application of vital importance to the national defense.23

Comparing this description with the previously given DoD description for Top Secret scientific or technical information indicates that both levels are concerned with developments vital to national defense. One difference between the two descriptions is that Secret information includes new technological developments, materials, etc., whereas to be Top Secret the information has to concern radically new and extremely important munitions of war such at atomic weapons.

Confidential Scientific or Technical Information

Neither EO 11652 nor the NSC regulations mentioned earlier provide specific guidance with respect to classifying scientific or technical information at the Confidential level. The only guidance provided by EO 12356 is that which is used to define the Confidential level -- that unauthorized disclosure of Confidential information reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security. The previously mentioned 1964 DoD instruction seems to consider that if scientific and technical information related to research and development of munitions of war is not classified at the Top Secret or Secret level, then it should be classified at the Confidential level. That instruction included the following guidance regarding what should be classified at the Confidential level.

    Unless a higher classification is needed to protect information relating to a particular munition:
    (a) Documents and manuals containing technical information used for training, maintenance, and inspection of classified munitions of war.
    (b) Research, development, production, and procurement of munitions of war.
    (c) Performance characteristics, test data, design, and production data on munitions of war.24

That guidance is rather broad and encompasses a lot of information.

A 1970 DoD report on the effects of classification on scientific and technical information on research, development, production, and deployment of weapon systems stated the following with respect to the use of the Confidential classification level:

    The Task Force was inclined to the view that the classification category [sic] of "Confidential," as applied at present to research and development not bearing immediately on field problems of military interest, is probably useless, or even detrimental, for it prevents normal diffusion of information without providing a really effective barrier to leaks. It probably would be much more realistic to confine this category of classification to matters bearing on military plans and readiness.25

The comment that the Confidential category did not provide a "really effective barrier to leaks" is rather puzzling with respect to classification matters. If the Confidential category was not effective, then that ineffectiveness may have been caused by inadequate enforcement by security of improper handling of documents or materials in that category, rather than due to improper placement of information in that category.

A similar comment about the ineffectiveness of the Confidential classification category would definitely not be applicable to classified scientific or technical atomic energy information (RD and FRD) classified at the Confidential level by DOE. In practice, DOE uses essentially only the Confidential and Secret classification levels for RD and FRD. DOE very rarely assigns a Top Secret classification level to scientific or technical RD or FRD. The protection of Confidential Restricted Data (CRD) and Confidential Formerly Restricted Data (CFRD) is taken very seriously within DOE, and information is not assigned the Confidential classification level unless it truly warrants classification.

If the balancing process described in Chapter 6 results in a conclusion that disclosure of the information will cause net damage to the nation, and the reasonably expected damage is not great enough to warrant a Top Secret or Secret classification level under the criteria given above, then the Confidential level should be assigned to the classified information.

REFERENCES

1. Executive Classification of Information--Security Classification Problems Involving Exemption (b)(1) of the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552), Committee on Government Operations, H.R. 93-221, 93rd Cong., 1st Sess., U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1973, p. 100.

2. Executive Order 12356, Fed. Reg., 47, 14874 (Apr. 6, 1982). Hereafter cited as "EO 12356."

3. EO 12356, 1.1(a)(1).

4. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, Merriam-Webster, Inc., Springfield, Mass., 1986.

5. EO 11652, Fed. Reg., 37, 5209 (Mar. 10, 1972). Hereafter cited as "EO 11652."

6. EO 111652, 1(A).

7. 32 CFR Part 2101.53(b).

8. U.S. Department of Defense, Information Security Program Regulation, DoD 5200.1-R, Chap. I, 1-501, June 1986. Hereafter cited as "DoD 5200.1-R."

9. U.S. Department of Defense, Security Classification of Official Information, Instruction 5210.47, Appendix A, Part I, Dec. 31, 1964. Hereafter cited as "DoD 5210.47."

10. EO 12356, 1.1(a)(2).

11. EO 11652, 1(B).

12. 32 CFR Part 2101.53 (c).

13. DoD 5200.1-R, Chap. I, 1-502.

14. DoD 5210.47, Appendix A, Part II.

15. U.S. Engineer Office, Manhattan District, Security Manual, Nov. 26, 1945, pp. 20-21. Hereafter cited as "MED Security Manual."

16. EO 12356, 1.1(a)(3).

17. 32 CFR Part 2101.53 (d).

18. DoD 5200.1-R, Chap. I, 1-503.

19. DoD 5210.47, Appendix A, Part III.

20. MED Security Manual, pp. 21-22.

21. EO 12356, 1.1(c). See also the Information Security Oversight Office "Directive No. 1," Fed. Reg., 47, 27836 (June 25, 1982), 2001.1(b)(2); 32 CFR 2001.1(b)(2).

22. DoD 5210.47, Appendix A, Part I, Item 7.

23. DoD 5210.47, Appendix A, Part II, Items 6 and 7.

24. DoD 5210.47, Appendix A, Part III, Item 5.

25. U.S. Department of Defense, Report of the Defense Science Task Board on Secrecy, F. Seitz, Chmn., Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, July 1, 1970, pp. 10-11.

On to Chapter Eight.




FAS | Government Secrecy | Library || Index | Search | Join FAS