The dog ate my classified documents

I suppose it's just a matter of time before we hear that excuse tripping off the tongues of our D.C. officials. It's just as ludicrous as leaving classified documents in a box in your garage by your vintage sports car and expecting the rest of us to believe that that's preferable to storing them properly.

Thousands of government employees, military personnel and private sector contractors have security clearances and routinely handle classified documents on a daily basis. I know I did for 20 years in embassies and at consulates around the world. We had special folders for them with bright red "CLASSIFIED" emblazoned on the covers. The classifications ranged from "Limited Official Use" (LOU) to "Confidential" to "Secret" to "Top Secret." (There are also classifications that go beyond 'Top Secret.')

The U.S. classification of information system has three classification levels -- Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential -- which are defined in EO 12356.2. 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: (1) "Top Secret" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security. (2) "Secret" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security. (3) "Confidential" shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security.

It is common practice for written documents like the hundreds of thousands of telegrams known as 'cables' that pass between government agencies, embassies, etc. to contain information that is classified at different levels, and some information that isn't. In a single telegram or report, individual paragraphs are marked to indicate the level of classification. As an example, a document's title might be preceded with the marker "U," indicating that the title and existence of the document are unclassified. Then within a document, paragraphs might carry the markers "S" for secret, "C" for confidential or "TS" for top secret. The rule of thumb is that the highest classification of any portion of the document determines its overall classification. This allows for the easy identification and removal of classified portions so that less sensitive sections can be shared in unclassified settings.

Responsibility starts with the originator of the document. Deciding what information is classified is subjective. While some things clearly need to be kept secret, other issues are not so obvious. Determinations on the level of sensitivity are often done in concert with other members of an agency or at an embassy, for example. Mishandling classified information, especially if it is accidental, is most often handled as an administrative matter, but more serious violations can incur criminal charges and penalties. Federal law (18 U.S. Code § 1924) states that anyone who "knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both."

At embassies, it's common practice to store all classified materials in special classified safes. You don't, under any circumstances, file them away in normal filing cabinets and you don't leave them out on your desk if you leave your office. The Marine Security Guards (MSGs) do routine sweeps of all embassy offices after closing hours and they sometimes do checks of offices during working hours. Security is paramount to keep these documents out of the hands of unauthorized persons without security clearances. Once I left an embassy personnel contact list that was marked 'LOU' (the absolute lowest classification) out on my desk overnight. The next morning I entered my office to find a yellow notice from the Regional Security Officer (RSO) that I had received a 'warning' and had to see the RSO about it. Needless to say, I never left a classified document unprotected again in my 20 years of service.

Cavalier treatment of 'secrets' of whatever kind is not something to be trifled with and that makes the recent discoveries of Biden's documents worthy of further investigation. Congress has an obligation to get to the bottom of it and not let the administration or the Democrats trivialize the infraction. There are no 'apples and oranges' when it comes to America's secrets. Both are the same 'fruit' from the same 'tree.'   

Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 30 countries for 25 years during the Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush Administrations. He is the author of twelve books, six of which are on American politics and has written over 1,300 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He operates a political news story aggregator website: He can be reached at:


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