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Confidential, Classified & Top Secret

The executive agencies sort classified information into three categories of escalating sensitivity: "confidential," "secret," and "top secret." "Confidential" applies to information whose release could "damage" national security, whereas secret carries with it the potential for "serious damage" and top secret "grave damage." In practice, the definitions are flexible and each agency has adapted the terminology for its own use.

Protecting sensitive or confidential data is paramount in many businesses. In the event such information is made public, businesses may face legal or financial ramifications. At the very least, they will suffer a loss of customer trust. In most cases, however, they can recover from these financial and other losses with appropriate investment or compensation.

The same cannot be said of the defense and related communities, which includes military services, intelligence organizations and some areas of police service. These organizations cannot easily recover should sensitive information be leaked, and may not recover at all. These communities require higher levels of security than those employed by businesses and other organizations.

While any information can be classified - documents, cable traffic, and information from other sources - the government mostly applies it to documents. In 1998, the federal government classified more than 7 million documents, with the CIA classifying 40 percent of them, the Defense Department 29 percent, the National Reconnaissance Office 27 percent, and the Justice Department 2 percent. (The State Department accounted for 1 percent all classified documents, but that number does not include the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables sent each year.) The total number of classified documents is in the billions. In 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order requiring all new classified information to include a declassification date at its birth. All classified material older than 25 years must now be reviewed and, unless it meets a narrow exemption, be declassified. (Certain types of nuclear-weapon designs, for example, are exempted from automatic declassification.) More than 600 million pages of classified documents have been declassified in the last three years, compared with 250 million in the previous 15.

Confidentiality has been defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO) as "ensuring that information is accessible only to those authorized to have access" and is one of the cornerstones of Information security. Confidentiality is one of the design goals for many cryptosystems, made possible in practice by the techniques of modern cryptography.

Confidentiality also refers to an ethical principle associated with several professions (eg, medicine, law, religion, journalism, ...). In ethics, and (in some places) in law, some types of communication between a person and one of these professionals are "privileged" and may not be discussed or divulged to third parties. In those jurisdictions in which the law makes provision for such confidentiality, there are usually penalties for its violation. Journalists often recognize several levels of confidentiality with news sources. They are:

  • On the record
    Information provided "on the record" may be quoted and attributed directly to the source. For instance, "Mr. Jones, a metropolitan police captain, said..."
  • On background
    Information provided "on background" may be attributed to a person's position. For instance, "A metropolitan police worker speaking on condition of anonymity said..."
  • Deep background
    Information provided "on deep background" may be included in the article, but not clearly attributed. For instance, "A source familiar with the investigation indicated..." or simply "there are suspicions that..."

Lawyers are often required by law to keep confidential anything pertaining to the representation of a client. The duty of confidentiality is much broader than the attorney-client evidentiary privilege, which only covers communications between the attorney and the client.

Both the privilege and the duty serve the purpose of encouraging clients to speak frankly about their cases. This way, lawyers will be able to carry out their duty to provide clients with zealous representation. Otherwise, the opposing side may be able to surprise the lawyer in court with something which he did not know about his client, which makes both lawyer and client look stupid. Also, a distrustful client might hide a relevant fact which he thinks is incriminating (because it shows motive), but which a skilled lawyer could turn to the client's advantage (for example, by raising affirmative defenses like self-defense).

However, most jurisdictions have exceptions for situations where the lawyer knows that the client is about to kill or seriously injure someone, or is using the lawyer's services to perpetuate a crime or fraud. In such situations the lawyer may be able to notify the police, though they usually must first confront the client and try to convince the client to conform his or her conduct to the boundaries of the law.

Note that these exceptions generally do not cover crimes that have already occurred, even in extreme cases where murderers have confessed the location of missing bodies to their lawyers but the police are still looking for those bodies. The U.S. Supreme Court and many state supreme courts have affirmed the right of a lawyer to keep their mouth shut in such situations. Otherwise, it would be impossible for any criminal defendant to obtain a zealous defense.

California is famous for having one of the strongest duties of confidentiality in the world; its lawyers must protect client confidences at "every peril to himself or herself." Until an amendment in 2004, California lawyers could not breach their duty even if they knew that a client was about to commit murder.

Recent legislation in the UK curtails the confidentiality professionals like lawyers and accountants can maintain at the expense of the state. Accountants, for example, are required to disclose to the state any suspicions of fraudulent accounting and, even, the legitimate use of tax saving schemes if those schemes are not already known to the tax authorities.

The communications of a doctor and a patient in a professional medical capacity are granted legal confidientiality in most countries. Confidentiality is also associated with the relationship between a penitent and their religious advisor. In Roman Catholicism, a priest cannot relate anything revealed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to a third party, even to save their own life or that of another.

Classified information is information to which access is restricted by law or regulation to particular classes of people. A formal security clearance is required to handle classified documents or access classified data; the clearance process requires a satisfactory background investigation. There are typically several levels of sensitivity, with differing clearance requirements. This sort of hierarchical system of secrecy is used by virtually every national government.

The purpose of classification is ostensibly to protect information from being used to damage or endanger national security. Classification formalizes what constitutes a "state secret" and accords different levels of protection based on the expected damage the information might cause in the wrong hands.

A common question about U.S. classified information is whether a level above Top Secret exists. Looked at one way, the answer is almost certainly no. Executive Order 13292 clearly states the Top Secret is the highest level of classification. If there were some secret Executive Order that created a still higher level, there could be questions of adequate legal notice if someone mishandling that information were to be prosecuted. On the other hand, if a U.S. government agency wants to create a program so secret that the program's name itself is known to only a short list of hand picked individuals who have been recently subjected to the most thorough and intrusive vetting process imaginable, they can do so under the code word and special access provisions of Executive Order 13292. Stringent additional security measures beyond those prescribed for ordinary Top Secret can also be required for the program, which would none the less still be classified at the Top Secret level, but with a code name and other markings added. As a practical matter the distinction is mostly semantic.

To be properly classified, a classification authority (an individual charged by the U.S. Government with the right and responsibility to properly determine the level of classification and the reason for classification) must determine the appropriate classification level as well as the reason information is to be classified. A determination must be made as to how and when the document will be declassified and the document marked accordingly. Executive Order 13292 describes the reasons and requirements for information to be classified and declassified. Individual agencies within the government develop guidelines for what information is classified and at what level.


Yup! I've not only seen Elvis ... he was in a UFO!

While the classification of information by the government is not supposed to be used to prevent information from being made public that would be simply embarrassing or reveal criminal acts, it has been alleged that the government routinely misuses the classification system to coverup misdeeds. See, for example, The Pentagon Papers. Many conspiracy theories such as the JFK assassination theories suggest that the government has classified information as top secret that reveals the involvement of agencies such as the CIA.

Various UFO conspiracies mention a level "above top secret" used for UFO design information and related data. They suggest such a classification is intended to apply to information relating to things whose possible existence is to be denied, such as aliens, as opposed to things whose potential existence may be recognized, but for which access to information regarding specific programs would be denied as classified. The existence of an "above top secret" classification is considered by some as unnecessary to keep the existence of aliens a secret, as they say Information at the "Top Secret" level, or any level, can be restricted on the basis of need-to-know. Thus, the U.S. Government could conceal an alien project without having to resort to another level of clearance. The "need to know" would limit the ability to have access to the information. Some suggest that claims of the existence of such a classification level may be based on the mistaken belief that the ‘'levels'' of classification are themselves classified: As such they feel that books available claiming to contain "above top secret" information on UFOs or remote viewing should arguably be taken with a grain of salt.

Ricky Ricardo Shot JFK

Some conspiracy theories are more plausible than others.
1963: JFK's Assassination
This granddaddy of all conspiracy theories postulates that JFK was killed by the CIA. Or Cuban nationals. Or the Mob. Or LBJ. In the end it was ruled that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. (Don't tell Oliver Stone.)
1972: Watergate
It wasn't the crime but the cover-up. At first skeptics were shocked - shocked! - that the president would conspire to defraud the American public. But in the end the tapes didn't lie.
1993: The Clinton Body Count
Bubba found himself mired in a slew of scandals, but the theory that he was assassinating people who got in his way (50-plus victims) was the most explosive.
1998: The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy
Conservatives cried foul when Hillary Clinton claimed they were conspiring to derail Bill's presidency, but given the sheer volume of their accusations, she may have had a point.
2001: 9/11
Most of the theories surrounding 9/11 claim that Dubya's crew either had advance knowledge of the attacks or - more disturbingly - that the "attacks" were staged to give them an excuse to go to war.

No conspiracy theory is underrated. With society’s increasing fascination with conspiracy theories, most simple stories quickly fall victim to feverish and often byzantine conspiracy speculation. For instance, Princess Diana’s death in an accident caused by her drunken chauffeur becomes an assassination carried out by British intelligence at the behest of the monarchy; John Lennon’s murder by a deranged fan escalates to a CIA strategy to silence the rock star because of his outspoken politics; House Republicans who led the effort to impeach Clinton cannot be dismissed by Democrats just as overzealous partisans but are quickly injected into a “vast right-wing conspiracy” financed by reclusive millionaires who coordinate widespread campaigns to undermine the Presidency.

Unfortunately, there are real conspiracies, and at different times government officials, police, military officers, and others whom we should ordinarily trust do become involved in nefarious plots against the public interest. Invariably—as in the cases of Watergate, the lying over Vietnam, Iran-contra—the schemes unravel. In the real world the individuals behind such plots are often more like the Keystone Kops than the public’s perception of James Bond.

However, the mania to immediately cast almost any significant issue in terms of conspiracy—coupled with an almost frenzied speculation unrestrained by the facts—makes it more difficult to unmask the real conspiracies that may be brewing. There are a few subjects that I would like to further investigate, where at least my curiosity is high. These include precisely what the military knew regarding Gulf War syndrome; why the IRS completely reversed itself in its long war with Scientology, suddenly deciding to grant its longtime foe a church classification and tax immunity; and, finally, some loose ends over whether a John Doe II might have existed in the Oklahoma bombing case.



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