Classified Information: A Personal Perspective
I spent 40 years as a scientist in a federal agency and was one of the few staffers at the facility to possess a security clearance. My clearance level was such that it caused the bosses intense heartburn when they had to pay for the periodic full field recertifications (probably why there were only a handful of cleared staffers on the site).
In my work, I occasionally handled and developed classified content and knowledge. Some was critical sensitive, some secret or top secret, some ITAR (google it), and some with another administrative restriction. I developed data that was immediately applied in defense or intelligence, and I participated in meetings that were heavily guarded. I also testified under seal in federal court and before federal grand juries, and I prepared expert reports for the FBI.
Once, I was huddled outside around a Walmart pay phone in an ugly snowstorm with several federal agents, asking HQ for advice because we thought the room we were using (in an undisclosed location) was “compromised.” On another occasion, in a closed meeting of cleared staff, the lead asked if anyone had been “recruited,” meaning approached by a foreign agent. One or two folks raised their hands, and I remember feeling miffed that I was never waylaid by Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale! Google them if you have to.
The whole experience was a hell of a lot of fun, and I never violated my oath—and I am not doing so here. I offer the following thoughts because of the events currently unfolding in the media.
Image: Top secret by rawpixel.com.
Believe it when I say that very much content that is “classified” is already public domain, common knowledge, or even intuitive. Maintaining such materials as classified represents a vast waste of public resources. As an example, a few years ago, certain training materials for certain technical branches of the military services included a fundamental discussion of acid-base chemistry and the measurement of pH, printed in a booklet with a top-secret cover sheet. Mishandling this 1920s-vintage high school chemistry “knowledge” was a felony.
An individual, once given access to this information, testing his/her swimming pool water for pH, who then explains to his (or her) 7-year-old what it means would technically violate his (or her) oath. This is a silly example of a silly reality that still exists despite Congress passing numerous “reducing over-classification” laws and shows the need for a purge.
As a corollary to the above, far too many FOIA requests are summarily denied with no explanation. After the Boulder, Colorado, plutonium spill in 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deposed me as a subject matter expert. It has been impossible for me to obtain a transcript of my own testimony. Even Mickey Dolenz of the Monkeys must now sue to access his FBI file from the 1960s.
When I was asked to view the most restricted compartmentalized data, it happened in a guarded room, with armed officers outside the door and an observer inside the room with me. My cell phone would be outside, locked in my truck. I would be given a sealed envelope and two number 2 pencils. My time was strictly limited to one or two hours. I would write whatever was asked of me directly on the materials and then reseal it in another envelope along with the two pencils. Then, I would sign my name along the seal, using a blue ink pen that the observer provided. The observer would then countersign the envelope.
Opportunity to compromise the data: nil (at least for me), except for what was in my head. But what was in my head is what they paid me for.
That was some years ago. Nowadays, the vast majority of compartmentalized data is digital, especially so-called “nuclear secrets.” It is stored and used on secure servers with no means of transmitting, no means of printing, no screen print button on the keyboard, no USB port, nothing. Multi-factor authentication of users is the norm. These servers are typically located in special rooms hardened to prevent sound or electromagnetic access and, of course, all user communication devices are locked up outside.
Even if you had your cell phone, you can’t call out since you are in the middle of a Faraday cage. And at no level are you allowed to have your cell phone with you, even if your office is oval-shaped and in a stately white building. Remember President Obama moaning how they wouldn’t let him keep his Blackberry? (Come on, man, I love my Blackberry!) The opportunity to compromise the data? Probably nil, but perhaps with advanced tradecraft, who knows?
The only way I can think of to get an image off one of these secure servers is if it happened to be sitting on the top of your toilet tank. In your condo. Then you could snap a pic with your cell phone. Yeah, I can see that being a problem. So does Prof. Alan Dershowitz, who articulated the Clinton indictability test on this basis. Anyway, a picture of documents strewn on the floor at Mar a Lago with classification covers paperclipped (!?!) seems oddly anachronistic in 2022.
Yet, of some 33 boxes of documents seized that day in August, it is reported that 100 documents bear classified markings, although what level of classification is not specified. In recent weeks, President Trump’s team found two additional documents with “classified” markings (again, what level we do not know) and sent them to the archives. Beyond this, the Justice Department has not disclosed what other “classified” materials it believes have been withheld.
It will indeed be interesting to observe how this current controversy plays out, probably over the next couple of years. It begs the question of how we classify information and for what purpose, and what constitutes its misuse. That’s a discussion long overdue for all of us, including former presidents.