Recent disclosures that President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, and former Vice President Mike Pence stored classified documents at home have shined a spotlight on what many people believe to be excessive government classification of information. (While many observers are arguing for a reevaluation of the classification process, at least one former government official has argued that current and former government officials have a responsibility to protect information designated as classified, whether that information is properly classified or not.)
The U.S. government system for classifying information is designed to protect sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands. Classified information is defined in Executive Order 13526—Classified National Security Information as government information that “could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” if improperly disclosed. Examples of such information could include secretly gathered information on a foreign nation’s nuclear weapons posture, the identities of U.S. intelligence agents, or clandestinely assembled profiles of foreign leaders. (Some such information has reportedly been contained in classified documents found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.) Classification of such information is often necessary to protect tradecraft and genuine state secrets.
The executive order also defines three categories of classified information: confidential, secret, and top secret. Information so classified is information whose unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause damage (if classified as confidential), serious damage (if secret), or exceptionally grave damage (if top secret) to national security. At the same time, the order also specifies that classification shall not be used to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error”; “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency”; “restrain competition”; or “prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.”
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