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This column contains only UNCLASSIFIED information, and is labeled CONFIDENTIAL


(U) Hillary Clinton’s email messages in her job as Secretary of State have been a significant topic of discussion in the current presidential campaign, although they were glossed over in the presidential debate on Sept. 26. Her use of a private email server instead of one provided by the U.S. government set off a year long investigation by the FBI. The FBI Director, James Comey, declined to recommend charges against her for any impropriety, however, he noted that she had been extremely sloppy with regard to handling and protecting classified information.

(U) In order to understand the severity of Secretary Clinton’s missteps, her explanations and the decision by Director Comey not to push for a prosecution, we need to understand exactly what she did, why it is important, and the context in which her transgressions occurred.  The goal is to give voters and others interested in this complex issue more information so as to make informed decisions on the upcoming presidential election.  This two-part opinion will attempt to explain the severity, the consequences and the import of Secretary Clinton’s actions.

(U) In previous jobs in the military, I routinely handled messages up to the level of SECRET, including Special Compartmentalized Information (SCI).  While also cleared for TOP SECRET SCI (TS/SCI) material, our protocol in processing such information was not what I would call routine. But it was not unusual for me to read, browse or scan 200 messages a day up to the SECRET level and TS or TS/SCI several times per month. No doubt there are military veterans on campus who had much greater access and over longer periods than I did.

(U) Before we go further, we should define the three levels of classification used within the US government.

(U) CONFIDENTIAL is the lowest level of information which we seek to protect from dissemination. The criteria for assigning the Confidential classification to information is whether its unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the nation’s security. While this definition is somewhat vague, a typical piece of information that might be classified would be the movement of an important governmental official, say, the president. What time the motorcade taking President Obama to an appointment at the Pentagon leaves the White House would often be classified Confidential, as we would not want to tip off potential terrorists when the presidential limousine would be on I-395 in Washington, DC. Typically, such information is routinely declassified after the specific movement of the president is concluded; the movement is public record after it has occurred, and no one has to send out another message saying the original information is no longer classified. Both the classification and the declassification are just common sense.

(U)  SECRET information is defined as material whose unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to national security.  Military plans, negotiations with foreign powers, technical information related to the military or national security are examples of this type of material. In World War II, the phrase, “Loose lips sink ships,” emphasized the need to closely guard the movement of troops and war material across the Atlantic Ocean, to protect ships from German submarine attacks. Because this type of information can be analyzed after the fact, and specific routes or timing could be gleaned, it is generally not declassified for months or years.

(U)  The inadvertent release of TOP SECRET information could cause exceptionally grave damage to the U.S., and it receives the highest level of protection. Material can be Top Secret because of the timing of an action, such as the Normandy Invasion on D-Day, or because the facts must be protected from release, such as the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bomb. It is common that for such information to be declassified, the originating agency which originally classified it must be consulted and will make the determination on whether or not it may be released.

(U)  Each of these levels of classification is abbreviated, as is UNCLASSIFIED, and the four abbreviations are TS, S, C and U. A message which contains classified information must be marked at the top and bottom of each page with the highest level of classification found within it.  This word must be in all capital letters and there must be a space between each letter, as the word  C O N F I D E N T I A L is at the top of this column. Additionally, each paragraph must have a marking, in parentheses, preceding the information, as each of the paragraphs you have read so far has had. Since the information is Unclassified, each paragraph begins with (U), letting the reader know there is no classified information in it. Thus, while the overall classification of a message might be Secret, and each page will have S E C R E T at the top and bottom, different paragraphs may be marked (S) if they contain Secret information, (C) if they contain Confidential material, or (U) if they are not classified at all. Thus, you could have a document that is classified Top Secret, but almost every paragraph is marked (U). All it takes is one bit of information that must be protected, and the whole message, plan or book is classified.

(U)   Now that we have set the groundwork for classifying government documents, we can talk about what Hillary Clinton did, the mistakes she made in protecting classified information, and the reason the FBI Director called her sloppy but did not recommend prosecution for her mishandling of material. Look for that column next week.

Bill Delehunt can be reached at

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