You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 61: Classified Documents 101

Classified Documents 101

Classified information is utilized by nearly every agency in the government, but what happens when that information is leaked or mishandled? After classified documents were discovered in the private residences of both former and current presidents, and classified Pentagon documents were leaked online, classified documents and their handling have become a hot topic of discussion. In this episode of Big World, former FBI intelligence analyst Jorhena Thomas, SIS/MA ’04, joins us to discuss the classification process, document handling, security clearances, and more.

Thomas discusses the type of information that get classified and the different classification levels (2:45). She also walks us through the classification process (5:24) and discusses who gets to decide what information is classified (6:00).

Recent leaks have raised questions and concerns over security clearances, including: how does one get a security clearance in the first place (7:40)? Once a document is classified, how long does it stay that way (11:52)? What is proper handling protocol for classified documents (17:43)? Closing out the episode, Thomas discusses why some government agencies may “overclassify” documents (20:47) and explains the tear-line process of declassifying documents in part (23:19).

During our “Take Five” segment, Thomas shares five things that listeners should know about classified documents (13:33).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. In June 2022, classified documents were found to be held not very securely. At former president Donald Trump's residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. In November and December of 2022, President Biden's staff discovered classified documents from his time as vice president, and some of those were found in his garage. And in January of this year, classified documents were found at the home of former Vice President Mike Pence in Indiana. And all of this was very concerning, but a casual observer could perhaps be forgiven for not worrying overly much about the protection of documents from past administrations. However, that was before Jack Teixeira. A 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard was arrested on April 13th of this year and charged with two counts under the Espionage Act. Teixeira shared text from and images of classified documents on social media and messaging platform Discord. And some of these documents contained intelligence that was less than 40 days old.

1:21      KS: So today, we're talking about classified documents. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Jorhena Thomas. Jorhena teaches at SIS, but that's really just scratching the surface for her. Jorhena started her security career as an intelligence analyst and program manager for the FBI, where she worked on international terrorism and criminal matters and oversaw the FBI's intelligence program in the Western hemisphere. She went on to serve as deputy director and operations manager at the Washington Regional Threat Analysis Center, which is DC's intelligence Ffsion center; chief of staff to the DC Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice; senior risk consultant with the Gate 15 company; and regional security manager for the Americas with CARE USA. Jorhena is currently the director of professional advancement with Girl Security, an organization focused on bringing more women and gender minorities into the national security space. Jorhena, thanks for joining Big World.

2:20      Jorhena Thomas: Hi, Kay. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

2:24      KS: I am so excited to learn about this. Jorhena, everyone can call up a mental picture of a document with a cover that has “Top Secret” stamped on it in bold letters, but that's at least partly Hollywood. So I'd like to start in a pretty basic place. What kinds of documents or information are classified, and are there different levels of classification?

2:45      JT: Yeah, there are. So the idea behind classification is to protect the US government's secrets and in general, classified information is to protect either sources or methods or both. So, what that means is we classify information to protect the source, so where we got the information or whom we got the information from. So that's protecting sources, protecting methods is to protect how we got the information. So if it was a spy satellite or if there was a defector or something like that. So generally classification that falls into one of those two categories or both. And there are different levels of classification. So they run from unclassified information that the government uses up to top secret. So let me just give you a few of them and talk just really briefly about how they stagger up the ladder from less sensitive to more sensitive.

3:48      JT: So there's unclassified information, which is open information, then a step up from that is for official use only used to be called sensitive but unclassified. So this is unclassified information, but it has some strategic value and so it should be used for government purposes only. And then a step up from that is confidential information. A step up from that is secret, and then there's top secret. All those are different gradations of classification.

4:18      JT: And in addition to the classifications, there are what are called handling caveats. There's a handling caveat called NOFORN, and that means that you can't share the information outside of US government personnel. There's an ORCON handling classification, which means it's originator controlled. So, before it can be shared even within the US government, the agency that originated that classified information needs to give approval. So there are other handling caveats to go with it, but that's the basics of it. And then there are some higher levels of classification that you can be what's called read into. So if you have a particular need to know or be a part of a particular program or have access to a certain set of classified information, you can get read into it. And that's a different level of classification.

5:13      KS: And obviously not just anyone can run around classifying documents. What does the classification process look like? And basically who gets to say if something is classified and to what degree?

5:25      JT: Well, certainly pulling from the headlines, we know that the president has some say in that and classification and declassification. And at the working level, which is where I was, it really depends on the agency. So different agencies do different things. So in some agencies like say the National Security Agency, which focuses on communications intercepts, it is understood that the information that they are collecting is likely going to be put out at the top secret level at the very least. And then you have the NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office, also use satellites to gather information all over the world. It is likely that most or all of their information's going to be top secret, but then you have at a different end of the spectrum, the FBI, where I got a lot of my experience and cut my teeth with this stuff.

6:20      JT: And it varies depending on the type of information, how you got it, and the collector. So, in my experience, if say I was out with an agent on an investigation, we were able to collect some information, we might put a suggested classification on there. And then the reports officers who were the people who actually did the report finalized the classification and disseminated it, they were the ones to give it the final classification level according to the type of information that it was. I think that for some agencies it is more cut and dried, but for those that deal with a whole range of types of information and collection strategies, it can vary.

7:04      KS: I think that there were many people who may have been a bit startled by the young age of Jack Teixeira who's only 21 and who was the one who would release those documents on Discord. But his job required that he have a top-secret clearance because of the computer networks on which he worked. It does beg the question, and I think this is a question that's maybe more prevalent outside of DC because many people within DC have different levels of clearance and understand the process. But for those who are outside the beltway, what does the clearance process entail?

7:39      JT: Sure. I think just before I answer that question, Kay, I think it's interesting that people are focusing on his age. And I think that it will behoove us to remember that we've had other people who have shared classified information without authorization who were well into middle aid. There are a lot of folks that are very trustworthy and ethical and understand the rules and they're young and they have high-level clearances and they do just fine. So the clearance process is like this. Once you apply and once, you're moved up a couple of levels that they want, whatever agency you apply for wants to do a background check on you, you have to fill out a very comprehensive form that talks about you, your history, your background, your international connections, your history of criminal activity, drug use. And also after you've shared everything about yourself, you share about your family, your close friends, and even your associates, particularly associates who live outside of the United States.

8:52      JT: So the clearance process is really quite detailed. A background investigator generally will interview you and select family members and select friends and acquaintances, former and current colleagues, and things like that. So it is quite comprehensive. To give you a little bit of context, I was quite young when I first got my clearance. I think I was 24 and I'd never lived outside of the United States. I had limited travel, a pretty basic run-of-the-mill type of background check, and it took 10 months. So for someone who has other things going on, family overseas, or things like that, it can take quite a while. So people who may have applied in one year and they're waiting for their background check and they maybe don't start their job to the next year, that's very common.

9:49      KS: When I served in the US Marine band earlier on in my career, we had to have and maintain a White House security clearance because of where the band performs and I was I guess closing in on 30 and you had to give all of your addresses. And I had moved something like 13 times since I started college and I had to find the address for every awful apartment that I had lived in that time and try and find somebody at each location that knew me and contact information. So it was pretty extensive. And yeah, I remember it took a while and you don't really know that it's happening once you turn in all the information, you just sit there, you just wait. You just go on with your life and at some point, they say, "You're cleared, or I guess you're not."

10:33      JT: It's definitely a waiting game. And then for some agencies, there can be a polygraph involved as well. And I do also want to note too related to your question that once someone gets their clearance and starts federal service, there are different accesses that you have. So aside from being able to see the different levels of classified documents, there's this concept called need to know. It means that if you are working, let's say, for example, counter-terrorism topics, you likely won't be able to go to a database and see counterintelligence topics for example. So, there's this need-to-know concept and it's a way to protect information even among those who are cleared.

11:19      KS: Jorhena, I'm wondering about expiration, and here's an example. Government files pertaining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were only recently released by the Biden administration in 2020. And even then, over 500 documents were still withheld. And this example arguably has little or nothing to do with current national security interests. Now I'm not going to ask you about the Kennedy papers, but with that in mind, how long do documents stay classified in the normal course of things and how are they declassified?

11:52      JT: So there is an automatic trigger at 25 years after the classified information was created and released that it goes under review. So, once it hits 25 years old, its quarter century of a life, it undergoes the automatic review process by NARA, which is the National Archives and Record Administration. They oversee the process of declassification and they have to walk through everything and see if it is in the public interest or some national historic value to be able to release it. So even with this process though there are some exemptions, it doesn't mean that once all highly classified information hits 25 years, it's a free for all for the public. There are some exemptions.

12:39      JT: So for example, there's an exemption of revealing the identity of a confidential human source, for example, that is very sensitive. And although 25 years have expired, it doesn't mean that it would be useful for that person or their handler to release that information. So that's an example of an exemption. Another exemption might be if that information could reveal something about the US cryptologic systems for example, or emergency management plans, something at a high level that although the information is older, it still has potential value, and releasing it compose a threat to the US national security. So there are some exemptions and NARA does go over those very closely throughout the declassification process.

13:40      KS: Jorhena Thomas, it's time to take five. This is when you get to daydream out loud with five ideas you believe would change things for the better. And we're talking a lot about the specifics of classified documents, but we'll never get to everything. So what are five other things that people should know about classified information?

14:00      JT: The first is that raw information is unclassified, but it can become classified when put together with other raw pieces of information. So there may be three sets of information reports that by themselves are unclassified, but a government agency may put them all together with some analysis and classify that because together that unclassified information becomes classified. A second point is that some of the most interesting case studies about spying and espionage involve the selling or theft of classified information. One of the most interesting ones is Robert Hansen. So those who have not heard about Robert Hansen, you might want to look him up. His story's fascinating. He was an FBI agent who started spying and selling US classified information to the Russians. His story is fascinating, and it can teach us a lot about what we do in the clearance process and how we handle classified information now.

15:09      JT: And in fact, a lot of the ways that the US government has evolved its classification and clearance processes were directly related to what they learned from the Robert Hansen case. So, I highly recommended it. A third thing I want to know is that having a clearance involves more than being able to handle classified information. In many ways, it's a whole lifestyle. So cleared individuals need to pay attention to how they live, make sure they can't be blackmailed, watch how much they drink when they're out, and watch who they talk to, and who they befriend in person and online. It really is a lifestyle and you have to be on guard most of the time. So that's something else to remember.

15:57      JT: Another thing is looking at the story of Jack Teixeira, whom we have learned shared classified information on Discord. And I think that his case study is a really good example of how vulnerable the system is to insider threats and poor judgment. So, you can be young, you can be old, you can be middle-aged, or have a lot of different characteristics, but the system may not pick you up as an insider threat. So, I think that what we have learned about Jack Teixeira is going to impact the clearance process as well in some way, be it for better or worse.

16:42      JT: And the last thing I want to note is that cleared information or classified information isn't always the most valuable type of information to the US government. There's this set of information called open source information, and that's just unclassified information that you can get from the internet, from the news, from libraries, from your own observation of being out in the world that can be just as valuable or more valuable than information that happens to be classified. And because of all the technology that is ubiquitous in our society now, open-source information is continually gaining steam and gaining esteem in the intelligence community and other closed spaces in the government. As people realize that just because information's classified doesn't mean that it is the most useful or valuable.

17:37      KS: Thank you. And a lot of this sounds very clear-cut. And it makes sense when you talk about the process for clearing people and classifying documents. But anyone who's worked in or around an office knows that just in the normal course of business, whether you're dealing with an actual paper or with electronic documents, that things tend to fly around pretty quickly. Emails you find can have people added to it, and you can all of a sudden find that an email that you sent that you didn't really want somebody to see has landed in their inbox. So all kinds of things can happen. When we're talking about classified documents and how they're handled, is there a proper way to store and transport them?

18:25      JT: Yes, absolutely there is. So in an office, there's a type of office called a SCIF, a sensitive compartmented information facility. SCIF for short S-C-I-F. So that is the type of office that classified information can be processed in. The idea is that people here can more freely read classified information on their classified computers. They can print it if needed on the classified printer, they can share it with those in the SCIF. So, it's meant to be a protected area to facilitate the reading, listening, and communicating of classified information. In general, if it needs to be transported, it's supposed to have a cover sheet on it. So that top secret bright orange cover sheet that you've seen in the news and in the movies, it should have it on top. It should be wrapped in a folder or an envelope and transported in what we call a lock bag. And it is exactly what it sounds like. It's a black usually briefcase and it has a lock. So it's meant specifically for transporting classified information from one secure facility to another.

19:43      JT: And classified information can be printed, as I mentioned, on the appropriate machines, and if is printed, it can be stored and filed appropriately within the secure type of office environment, the SCIF, as I mentioned. I'll also mention Kay, that it is well known that higher-level government officials don't always abide by these rules. There's a famous picture of George Tenet, who is the former CIA director, in the lead up to the Iraq war, going to brief, I think it was Congress, and a journalist snapped a picture of him holding his classified information in his hand as he was walking into the building. And those of us who knew, this is not the way you're supposed to do it, we're like shaking our heads. So the way that I just described it to you is the way that the worker bees are supposed to do it, but it's not always like that, as you alluded to in your question.

20:48      KS: And last topic here, classified documents, as you mentioned, are supposed to be primarily to keep secrets of the US government-secrets that the government needs to keep secret usually for reasons of national security- and I think that there is a perception, and I don't know if it tracks with reality or not, that sometimes the classification of documents becomes political and that there are documents classified because the contents of them could prove embarrassing to either segments of the government or to people within it. And again, I don't know if that's an accurate perception or not. So, I guess I'm wondering, are documents sometimes classified when they don't need to be, whether it's because of someone guarding different interests than only the US government, or because of just being overly cautious, is overclassification ever an issue?

21:52      JT: Yes. So, I am going to be cautious with how I say this, but the short answer is yes. I can't say from personal experience about people over-classifying to protect political or personal interests, but I can speak to information being over-classified in an abundance of caution. So sometimes people may feel that the information may be sensitive or it may not, but let's just be on the safe side and slap a secret on it just in case, because you can maybe bring it down a little bit later on. I have seen that done but never for nefarious purposes, and I'm not saying that it doesn't happen for nefarious purposes, but I can't speak to that. I've just seen people be a little bit hinky or a little shaky about what they've collected and want to classify it just in case.

22:56      KS: And I think that's what I would like to believe, and I think that's probably what many people would like to believe, that a lot of this happens just out of an abundance of caution. But as you mentioned, declassifying, something can be a long process. So I guess it behooves the people who are making those choices to really be rigorous with themselves and their colleagues about whether something needs it.

23:19      JT: Absolutely, Kay. And I will say that there is this process called a tear line process, and so it's like a baby declassification. So say that you have some homeland security information that is classified at the top secret level, but it is in the best interest of everyone to share that with say, some law enforcement officers, but they only have a secret clearance. There is a process where you can get what we call a tear line. And a tear line, the name is like a relic from the 1950s where literally there was a cable, there was a line where the information was slightly declassified and then you tore it off and you could share that piece. So that's where the word tear line comes from.

24:08      JT: So there is a mini process if you get the right approvals. It doesn't have to go through NARA and all that, and it just is a way to share information and bring it down a classification level a bit so it can be shared for an authorized purpose. So I will say there is that, and I think people know that. So, people who may classify information at a higher level out of an abundance of caution know that there's the tear line process, so if they do need to share it for an authorized purpose, they know that they can.

24:41      KS: Jorhena Thomas, thank you for joining Big World and talking about classified documents. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. I learned a lot, and our conversation will not be classified. Thank you.

24:53      JT: Thanks, Kay.

24:54      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like getting summer concert tickets with no service charges and free parking. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Jorhena Thomas,
former FBI intelligence analyst and SIS alum (SIS/MA '04)

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