Confidential. Secret. Top Secret. We hear these terms thrown around concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails. But what do they really mean? If you don’t handle classified information (and most of you don’t), it’s hard to understand the impact of losing classified materials. Worse, most security people aren’t going to comment on it, and aren’t even allowed to visit sites like Wikileaks.
To attempt to demonstrate the damage disclosure can have, let’s use a football analogy. Imagine you’re a college football coach and play against other rival teams in your conference. You are trying to keep your plays and recruiting strategy hidden from the other teams, who are trying to figure these out in order to beat you. By the way, you’re doing your own spying on them as well.
Confidential information is classified information that if revealed would cause damage. In our analogy, imagine if a rival coach got ahold of your weekly schedule while you were recruiting. He could see where you were traveling and who you were meeting, which he could use to craft a better deal to try and steal those people away from you. But if he only had a one-week schedule, it might damage your recuriting, but only for a limited time.
Recruiting in the south huh….not a chance!
Secret information would cause serious damage if revealed. If one of your players used a hidden video camera to tape a rival teams practice and key plays, that would give you a massive advantage over them. Not only that, but it would take some time for the team to build new plays, practice them and roll them out, which allows your team to pummel them during the season.
Top Secret information causes grave damage if revealed, and is often used to protect “sources and means.” In our example, imagine if we had hidden a wireless video camera that was capturing our rival teams every practice. If the rival team discovers that we have a video of one practice, they might not know about the hidden camera, just that someone at some point took a video. They might spend time building higher fences or trying to conduct practice at night, even though none of those actions block our hidden camera, because they only had access to our Secret information.
But, if they discovered the existence of the hidden video camera, that would be really bad. First, it probably took us a lot of time and money to hide the camera, which is now wasted. Worse, what if our rival team is really cagey? They could run a fake practice where their team uses lineups that they know will make it into our hands, only to use different ones during an actual game. Their knowledge of the source of the information makes it Top Secret and gravely damages our ability to win a football game.
There is one more type of classified information called a Special Access Program. SAP is so sensitive that there is a separate access list for who can access the information. In fact, SAP may be so protected that unless the program manager tells you about it, you won’t even know it exists, and not even know its cover name.
A football SAP would be if you as coach had a rival player that you were paying off to pass information about that rival team. You wouldn’t risk telling your players about it. If your rival coach figured it out, the player could be banned and you could face expulsion from the conference and get fired. Disclosure would be catastrophic and cost you dearly.
So while the loss of any classified hurts, there is a scale for it. Confidential hurts in the short term, Secret a lot more, and Top Secret and SAP will almost definitely get people killed and cost millions of taxpayer dollars to fix. So when Snowden sells our Top Secret information to the Russians, he is not just a traitor, but he is costing you and every other taxpayer millions of dollars for the intelligence community to try and rebuild new access.
When the breach consists of multiple thousands of emails, containing information ranging all the way up to SAP and was caused by gross negligence, yes, you should be angry.
This post solely represents the view of the author and does not represent the official views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other branch of the US government. It also doesn’t contain any classified information, unlike some people’s emails floating around on the Internet.