The story dominating the news today is that President Trump, during a meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office last week, disclosed highly classified information about the terror group ISIS that US intelligence officers had obtained from another country’s intelligence services.
The information related to a plot to create explosive devices that can be hidden inside a laptop computer or other portable electronic device was classified as Top Secret (Code Word), according to The Washington Post and other outlets who have confirmed the original story.
The news immediately set off a firestorm, with intelligence experts and former U.S. spies denouncing the president for sharing information, provided in confidence by an ally, with one of the country’s greatest adversaries on the global stage.
Here’s a quick guide to the classification rules the federal government operates under.
Guidelines for classification of most information related to national security is found in Executive Order 13526, signed by former president Barack Obama in 2009. Following the lead of previous administration, the updated order created three broad categories of classification. The default setting, so to speak, is that information is unclassified unless a person with “original classification authority” decides to place it in one of those categories.
(The Department of Energy has a separate, two-level classification scheme that corresponds roughly with Secret and Top Secret, but is applied only to matters related to nuclear energy and weapons. Unlike the classification decisions made under executive orders, these are mandated by law.)
Confidential: The language of the order states that information is declared confidential if its unauthorized disclosure “reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.” In general, confidential clearance must be renewed every 10 years.
Secret: The next step up is secret “information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.” Again, the original classification authority must be able to articulate what that damage would be. Secret clearance must be reviewed after 10 years.
Top Secret: The highest level of classification, “Top Secret,” according to the EO, “shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” Until recently, Top Secret clearance had to be renewed every five years. However, early in 2016 that was pushed out to six years because of a backlog of clearances that were not being completed on time.
While these are the only three levels of national security clearance specifically outlined in the order, there is a next step that can be taken to further protect particularly sensitive information, either Secret or Top Secret, and that is to declare it “Sensitive Compartmentalized Information.” Access to SCI, also known as “code word” intelligence, is sharply limited, even among those who otherwise have the clearance to see it.
The information that Trump provided to the Russian officials who were visiting him in the Oval Office was of this last kind: information so secret that only a few people in the government are allowed to have it. Reportedly, he revealed information about the location of the information source, which experts fear could give adversaries insight into the cooperating intelligence agency’s operations.
To be clear, the president did not violate the law in releasing it. Classification authority is delegated by the president, and the president has the authority to declassify information at will. And on both Monday and Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster gave a very lawyerly answer to questions about whether or not Trump had revealed too much.
“It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That’s what he did,” McMaster said. He added, “The president in no way compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation.”
Oddly, McMaster ended an appearance in the White House briefing room by telling reporters that the president didn’t know the source of the information anyway, as though that were an excuse for revealing code-word intelligence.
“The president wasn't even aware where this information came from,” he said before leaving the podium. “He wasn't briefed.”
For his part, Trump defended his decision to provide the information to Russia as a “humanitarian” gesture that was part of his effort to enlist more Russian assistance in the battle against ISIS. “"We had a very, very successful meeting with the Russian minister,” he said Tuesday during a joint press conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We’re going to have a lot of great success over the next years, and we want to get as many people to help fight terrorism as possible.”
However, the president’s decision to provide the information to Russia is already raising alarm bells with U.S. allies who have begun to question the wisdom of sharing their own secrets with the Trump administration.