The government protects information deemed critical to national security using a classification system that ranks the importance of the information based on how much damage could be caused if it was leaked.
The classification level can change based on the information’s current relevance. When questions arise, the government is supposed to err on the side of a lower level. But critics have accused the government of widespread overclassification of information.
The highest level of classification
This classification level contains some of the government’s most important secrets.
A leak of information at this level is expected to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security, according to an executive order from 2009.
Within the “top secret” classification, there are designations that further restrict access to information, such as “sensitive compartmented information” (the designation of most of the National Security Agency documents released by Edward J. Snowden) and “special access program.”
The second highest level of classification
A leak of information at this level is expected to cause “serious damage” to national security. A vast majority of the information that Pvt. Chelsea Manning made public through WikiLeaks is classified “secret” or below.
The lowest classification level
Information at this level, according to the 2009 executive order, “could be expected to cause damage” to national security if released without authorization.
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