I'm sorry, that's classified.
January 5, 2007 2:39 PM   Subscribe

How do government employees with security clearances keep track of which information is classified and which information isn't, when they get asked questions about work that they do?

I'm talking about your usual federal or military person, who over the course of their careers might be privy to information that is classified in some way and can't be shared outside of whatever little realm they work in. Let's say they get asked a question which touches on some of the sensitive stuff. They can't go there, so they might reply that they can't discuss it, or it's classified, or whatever.

From what I understand, most of the classified stuff is of a pretty boring and seemingly pedestrian nature. Not really exciting stuff like UFO alien cover ups or who shot JFK. In short, a "secret" is perhaps one boring piece of a much larger and secret-er puzzle, but on its own, not very memorable as being secret. So -- how do government employees who "need to know" keep track of it all? X is secret, Y, though somewhat similar, isn't secret, and Z was classified but now isn't anymore... it just seems pretty daunting to keep it all straight and not something you'd want to screw up.

While I'm at it, how do they know what is still secret (from long ago) and what isn't secret anymore? When something gets declassified is there like, a big announcement, to those who would need to know it is? How is that managed?

(For pre-emptive clarification, I don't mean people whose entire work revolves around them having Q clearances and work for NSA / CIA / etc. and are constantly exposed to the sooper seekrit stuff. For them it's obvious, they just don't talk or they have some kind of cover story.)
posted by brain cloud to Law & Government (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just like anybody else who deals with secret information does it, when in doubt err on the side of secrecy.
posted by caddis at 2:47 PM on January 5, 2007

If you're not sure whether something is [still] classified or not, you don't talk about it. And a lot of the classified stuff is highly technical, anway--it's not something you'd talk about at cocktail parties, even if it weren't classified, simply because you'd bore the heck out of most of the people there, who wouldn't have the particular science or engineering background to understand it. The broad generalities aren't classified--an engineer can freely say, for example, "I design navigation systems for Army helicopters." He can't go around showing people the circuit diagrams for the system, and it's not like random friends, acquaintances, or even family members want that level of detail anyway.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:56 PM on January 5, 2007

The more mundane secret or confidential stuff is usually a type of information, not the specific item.

Example: I know that I can describe what life on a submarine is like, but that most descriptions of the propulsion plant are NOFORN, and specific details, numbers, and capabilities are classified confidential. Other categories of things are classified at other levels. Ship's schedule. Past navigation data. Purpose of the mission. etc.

There's really no practical real-time way of knowing what exactly has been declassified. Just seeing something in print elsewhere may not be enough - you could inadvertently confirm a wild-ass guess by repeating it. Easier just to stick with the usual guidelines or check with information security types before discussing something with an unfamiliar person.

So when I want to tell a funny story from the boat, I'm just in the habit of self-censoring out certain types of details. Unfortunately, sometimes that makes the story a lot less funny.
posted by ctmf at 3:05 PM on January 5, 2007

Much like caddis said, if there is a doubt in your mind that it is classified, you treat it like it is. It takes some time to get used to, but it isn't very difficult. I'm near DC, and I grew up in the area, so it is considered normal to not know what people do, and sometimes to not even know where they work.

It becomes more difficult when you read something, often on the internet, that is or was classified. Is it still something you can't talk about? Or if you deduce something from public information that is available to everyone, is your deduction classified? The answer to both of these questions is yes. If you have a clearance and you want to keep it, you just have to assume that you can't talk about certain things even when others are.

Also, responding with "it is classified" is in very poor form.
posted by bh at 3:07 PM on January 5, 2007

The details might have been numerous, but there are general types of information that are going to be classified and types that aren't. For the most part, it's not completely random.

If you work for the top-secret shoelaces division, for example, maybe many of the details about the shoelaces you make are public information: how thick they are, how many you make, what kind of shoe each kind works best with. But the best color for each kind of shoelaces is top secret, because the terrorists could do all kinds of nasty things if they knew about the colors of our laces.

So someone asks you about shoelaces: you tell them everything you know, but omit the color. Someone asks you about the colors of your laces: you decline to answer. Someone asks about shoelace model N-13, how big it is, how many were made, what color it is, etc. You tell them how big it is, how many were made and decline to answer the question about color. You didn't have to store "the color about N-13 is classified" in your memory, because you know that the entire category of information is classified.

(on preview: what cmtf said)
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:13 PM on January 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

As one who had a TS clearance years ago... yes, a lot of classified info is sort of mundane, but I encountered my share of intelligence material and details about hot programs, so I did have to be on my guard. For accidental disclosure we were required to familiarize ourselves with EEFI (essential elements of friendly information) which clued us in on what topics were dangerous to discuss in mixed company (see here). For catchalls, there are nondisclosure agreements to not discuss what we see or hear.

As far as declassification, I've noticed that sometimes officers will write memoirs years later and discuss sensitive things from years 20-30 ago... this has confounded me too how they're able to get away with it since you can't really check on classification status later in life, and FOIA declassified stuff is scarce and mostly has to do with policy. Me personally I just avoid the subject; unused memories tend to fade anyway and I don't have any memoirs to write.
posted by rolypolyman at 3:14 PM on January 5, 2007

Regarding the pedestrian nature of the information: sure, but there are reasons for keeping the information classified sometimes that you wouldn't think of. Example: you could probably find out in a library any number of ways to build a nuclear propulsion plant that would work. That part isn't a secret. Problem is, we don't want to confirm which specific designs and features we have or don't have. If we did, there are smart people who could figure out things that are secrets, like top speeds, max depths, ranges, projected noise levels...

also on preview, what croutonsupafreak said (right back at you)
posted by ctmf at 3:17 PM on January 5, 2007

On every compartmented program I've worked, we had annual refresher briefings that repeated the initial briefing. In addition to those, classified systems (projects, hardware, etc.) will have Security Classification Guides that spell out what's classified and to what level. The SCGs will also specify when the information is scheduled to be declassified and by whom.

My simplest rule-of-thumb: don't talk about work -- the only people really interested are me and spies.
posted by forrest at 3:18 PM on January 5, 2007

I agree with bh. And you only know what you need to know to do your job. And not talking about classified documents or events becomes second nature. Unfortunately sometimes greed and a feeling of importance lets classified information be compromised. That is why the security clearance is needed.
posted by JayRwv at 3:22 PM on January 5, 2007

Hey, thanks all...these answers have been really enlightening.

Also, responding with "it is classified" is in very poor form.

But it seems like such a cool phrase to bust out on someone. Damn!
posted by brain cloud at 4:16 PM on January 5, 2007

I have worked for the US government for over 20 years in 3 different agencies: General Services Administration, Department of Defense, and Bureau of Reclamation.

In all 3 agencies, I have dealt with sensitive information from my agency and others, including the US Attorneys Office.

I have never had any kind of "secret" clearance, and the documents I have dealt with are not "classified" or "secret." But they are referred to as "sensitive." For example, court records, surveillance transcripts and photographs, federal courthouse blueprints, emergency operating plans for federal facilities, and sensitive maps.

I hardly ever worry about spilling sensitive information. Mostly because most of it is boring. Unless you were actually trying to study weak spots in facilities, or wanted a scoop on a federal court case, you wouldn't care. It does become second nature to just not talk about it. If anyone asks about my job, I can tell them what I do and even that I work with sensitive documents. But I have no reason to start quoting boring facts from the documents.

The only time I have had to be careful is when a federal court case has been the focus of local news. Even though I may have been privy to the prosecutions evidence, once it is presented in court, it's no longer secret anyway, it's public record.

Essentially, I don't tell anyone about any specific information I deal with, whether sensitive or not, simply because it's just not that exciting.
posted by The Deej at 4:17 PM on January 5, 2007

I worked in a central govt agency (non-US) and was required to have a TS clearance (though I don't think I ever saw anything that was close to TS). The instructions they gave me were pretty simple, and worked well, I thought:

"If someone asks you anything about work, just discuss it in terms of 'well, I saw such-and-such in the newspaper' and leave it at that - don't offer an opinion one way or the other". This worked pretty well, as long as you remembered to err on the side of caution.

My only real problem was remembering which things had actually been announced and which hadn't - I had access to a lot of material that was going to be made public in a month or so, but which needed to be kept confidential until then. It was sometimes hard keeping track of what information was at what stage. So, err on the side of caution.
posted by Infinite Jest at 5:39 PM on January 5, 2007

Personally, I think "need to know" is the biggest key. On my program, I encounter an incredibly tiny subset of the classified data, that which I need to know to do my job. It's never been a problem at all to keep track of what's secret and what's unclassified. Then again, I err on the side of caution when I'm discussing anything about what we do, because even if it's unclassified, it's still proprietary to my employer...
posted by knave at 7:05 PM on January 5, 2007

I worked in a government security agency for a while and can tell you that the stuff I knew was either extremely mundane like the kind of software used to build a database or was secret because it was private, proprietary information about individuals.

I just didn't talk about work stuff unless it was public knowledge. Most of my work revolved around public policy issues, so the discussions were very openly debated, no problem there.

Regarding individuals, I was often asked for information from third parties, to which I would simply reply, "I'm sorry, I can't release information to you on that."
posted by Pollomacho at 7:19 PM on January 5, 2007

I work for a government department and frequently encounter Secret (and Protected) information. As others have said, the majority of stuff is secret for one of three reasons: it's information directly relevant to Cabinet (a briefing note, for example) and this stays Secret until the minister decides what to release; it's a commercial secret (we've signed the equivalent of an NDA); or it's information relating to a private individual (typically employee data: salary, evaluations, health reports). Cabinet info is stuff that is often mundane but could have reprocussions if released to the media, either the minister would be embarassed or someone could profit by inside knowledge (early access to regulation, for example). It's normally discussions of policy options and cost-benefit sorts of documents. Commercial info is often the most innocuous of the bunch, but we frequently overprotect commercial data to keep companies willing to cooperate with the government. Personal info is typical HR stuff thet any employee wants kept confidential.

Those are the three types of info that consitute the majority of the protected information that civil servants handle. There are of course, other secrets, the "interesting" ones, and those are classified by subject area. Anything that falls within the subject area is understood to be Secret and managed accordingly. Census or tax data and all its uses, is of this type, for example. National security and police issues are fairly clear-cut. A safe rule is: when in doubt, it's Secret.

It's really not hard to figure what's Protected, Secret or otherwise, on a case-by-case basis. The hard part is living up to all of the rules each level requires, especially for electronic media.
posted by bonehead at 8:19 PM on January 5, 2007

rolypolyman: With the CIA and NSA, and with people who hold security-sensitive offices in the armed forces, retired employees must submit anything they would like to have published to their former agencies for review before it can be published. I assume the same is true for any other federal agency or department handling classified information.

There's a big hubbub right now because a former CIA agent wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, but the CIA said a lot of the info in the article was still secret and could not be published. The former agent disagrees, but his hands are tied.
Some more details are here.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:09 PM on January 5, 2007

I thought the hubbub was that the CIA had given the go-ahead, but that the White House had then gotten wind of it and "un-cleared" it.
posted by alexei at 12:56 AM on January 6, 2007

I worked for a government contractor, and all of the non-public (classified, secret, what have you) stuff was completely physically separate from the regular stuff. Windowless locked rooms containing documents that cannot be removed, special 'safe' photocopiers, computers unconnected to the network, badges that prominently displayed your clearance status that had to be visible at all times, etc.

Memory studies indicate that retrieval is best when you're in a similar context to where you learned the information originally. If you learned your classified information in a special isolated environment, you're less likely to even recall it outside of that environment.
posted by breath at 2:17 AM on January 6, 2007

My father has had varying degrees of clearance, the highest was Omega (two levels above top secret), most of it was simply top secret. The Omega-level work he did was in cryptography. That's all I know. The way he phrases it is to give you the impression that "You probably wouldn't understand the details, anyway" but in truth it's more likely just a nice way of saying, "...but I can't tell you, regardless."

The top-secret stuff he's worked on I have slightly more knowledge of. I know the basic engineering problems he was working on and the projects.

The plain-secret stuff he's worked on I've seen schematics, diagrams, working models, etc.

In other words, the higher the level of clearance, the more mum he's been. And I'm his son.

Thing is, generally work is so compartmentalized that a spy wouldn't be very helpful unless they held a number of different positions simultaneously. Usually the problems that need solving are broken down into very small units that each person then works on. Because of this, it would be easy to determine who leaked any information because of the specificity of the work.

This is the military mindset: everything is broken down into tiny units that report to slightly larger units. The tiny units all have their work to do, and are under no circumstances allowed to discuss their particular role in the bigger picture with the other peons unless they "need to know."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:52 AM on January 6, 2007

One of my closest friends works for Canada Revenue Agency -- the tax people -- and she can't even tell me where her office is. She does rant about office politics sometimes, though.
posted by loiseau at 11:57 AM on January 6, 2007

To be clear, need to know is basic security policy. The fact that I have secret clearance just means I can handle secret documents, if required. If I don't have a demonstrable need for documents, I don't get access to them, even if I have the appropriate level of clearance. Need is mediated by upper management.

Clearance is only one of several necessary conditions for access. It alone is not sufficient. Clearance levels are not all-areas access passes.
posted by bonehead at 12:00 PM on January 6, 2007

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