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.
Dana Hedgpeth and Jennifer Jenkins
August 3, 2010; 6:37 PM ET
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