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How do you mail a top-secret letter?

Between the Wikileaks release of secret Afghan war documents and the publication of Top Secret America, there's been plenty of talk recently about how the government classifies its many secrets. But what's the real difference between secret, top secret, confidential and other information? Let's take a moment to define what those mean and how they're handled.


The beauty of government is that there's a definition for everything. Here's how the security levels are described, according to "Executive Order 13526 - Classified National Security Information."

(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 that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.

(2) ''Secret'' shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.

(3) ''Confidential'' shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.

So, for us regular folks: Top secret means it would cause "grave" damage. Secret is considered "serious" damage. And confidential is at the low end of the scale, causing just damage to national security.

Each type of information has a specific way in which it is to be handled and transmitted, which is spelled out in the directive.

An example of how top secret information should be handled: Forget the mailbox. The language reads, "Under no circumstances will Top Secret information be transmitted via the U.S. Postal Service or any other cleared or uncleared commercial carrier."

What can be used? -- Top Secret information shall be transmitted by direct contact between authorized persons; the Defense Courier Service or an authorized government agency courier service; a designated courier or escort with Top Secret clearance; electronic means over approved communications systems.

Information that's considered secret, however, can use certain types of services offered by the U.S. Postal Service. Spelled out, Any of the methods established for Top Secret; U.S. Postal Service Express Mail and U.S. Postal Service Registered Mail, as long as the Waiver of Signature block on the U.S. Postal Service Express Mail Label shall not be completed; and cleared commercial carriers or cleared commercial messenger services.

But it cautions: "The use of street-side mail collection boxes is strictly prohibited."

And for confidential information, it "shall be transmitted by any of the methods established for Secret information or U.S. Postal Service Certified Mail."

But there' are notes of caution: "When first class mail is used, the envelope or outer wrapper shall be marked to indicate that the information is not to be forwarded, but is to be returned to sender. The use of street-side mail collection boxes is prohibited."

The document also explains the proper way to destroy classified information. "The methods and equipment used to routinely destroy classified information include burning, cross-cut shredding, wet-pulping, melting, mutilation, chemical decomposition or pulverizing."

The debate is sure to continue about top secret and secret clearances and how they're used. Have thoughts, comments about the use of top secret and secret clearances? Please share.

By Dana Hedgpeth and Jennifer Jenkins  |  August 3, 2010; 6:37 PM ET
 
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Comments

it's not necessary to mail a letter. just email yourself and you reach the authorities. that's what i do anyways :)

Posted by: jmr12 | August 4, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

i think it kind of goes down the line. like some agencies can't read all i write. they'll pass along what they can read. since they're building a case...

then whoever else is on my computer. not exactly sure.

still waiting for my miranda rights to be read to me. it's been 4 years and i still have no attorney. i've attempted to invoke my rights under the constitution, but i don't have any it appears.

Posted by: jmr12 | August 4, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

i have absolutely no doubt that that some of you are being monitored. emails, internet activity, computers, etc. etc. all of you who are involved in this project.

in fact, i'd go as far as to say that this will extend out to families and friends.. and any other contacts.

fortunately for me i'm an honest & law abiding citizen. anything they get on me is either planted, manipulated or fabricated.

i know i sound like an idiot, but it's the truth.

Posted by: jmr12 | August 4, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I recall an interview of Senator Patrick Moynihan, who tried to end the indescriminate and excessive use of the secret and top secret designations, since they often were not to protect the nation from grave or serious harm, but embarrassment to various officials for having provided a prostitute or purchasing champaign with certain funds, or similar or greater embarrassing actions. Moynihan, in that interview said that secret and top secret were not that important designations, since the real secrets have another term or terms used for them. Does Dana Priest know what those terms are, and their definitions?

Posted by: DrMarkJohnHunter | August 8, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

You encrypt and then use an unsuspecting image on a web server- embed - and that's that.

I prefer Sesame Street.

Posted by: NationalismDividesHumanity | August 8, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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