Secrecy and National Security: Classified Information, Executive Privilege

This legal guide provides a comprehensive overview of the frameworks, statutes, and judicial interpretations governing classified information and executive privilege in the United States, essential for understanding national security and confidentiality.


Secrecy and national security are critical components of governmental operations, particularly in matters involving classified information and executive privilege. This legal guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of these topics, exploring the legal frameworks, key statutes, executive orders, and judicial interpretations that govern the handling and protection of sensitive information in the United States.

Classified Information

Definition and Categories

Classified information refers to data that has been deemed sensitive for national security reasons and is protected from unauthorized disclosure. The classification system in the United States is designed to safeguard information that, if disclosed, could potentially harm national security. Classified information is categorized into three main levels:

  1. Top Secret: Information that could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
  2. Secret: Information that could cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.
  3. Confidential: Information that could cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

The legal framework governing classified information is established through various statutes, executive orders, and regulations. Key legal instruments include:

Executive Order 13526

Executive Order 13526, signed by President Barack Obama on December 29, 2009, outlines the classification system for national security information. It specifies the criteria for classification, the process for declassification, and the responsibilities of government officials in handling classified information. The full text of Executive Order 13526 can be accessed here.

National Security Act of 1947

The National Security Act of 1947 is a foundational statute that restructured the United States' military and intelligence agencies post-World War II. It established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), among other entities. The Act also provides a legal basis for the classification and protection of national security information. The full text of the National Security Act of 1947 is available here.

5 FAM 480

The Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) provides guidelines for the classification and declassification of information within the Department of State. 5 FAM 480 specifically addresses the procedures for classifying and declassifying national security information. The full text of 5 FAM 480 can be accessed here.

Classification Authorities

The authority to classify information is vested in specific government officials, including the President, Vice President, agency heads, and other designated officials. These individuals are responsible for ensuring that information is classified appropriately and that the classification is reviewed periodically to determine if it remains necessary.


Declassification is the process of removing the classified status of information, making it available for public access. Information can be declassified through several mechanisms:

  1. Automatic Declassification: Information is automatically declassified after a specified period, typically 25 years, unless it meets certain criteria for continued classification.
  2. Systematic Declassification Review: Agencies conduct regular reviews of classified information to determine if it can be declassified.
  3. Mandatory Declassification Review: Individuals or entities can request the declassification of specific information, which agencies must review and respond to within a set timeframe.

Protection of Classified Information

The protection of classified information involves various measures to prevent unauthorized access, including physical security, personnel security, and information security protocols. Agencies must implement robust security practices to safeguard classified information from espionage, cyber threats, and other risks.

Executive Privilege

Definition and Scope

Executive privilege is a constitutional doctrine that allows the President and other high-level executive branch officials to withhold information from Congress, the courts, and the public. This privilege is intended to protect the confidentiality of executive branch deliberations and ensure the effective functioning of the government.

The legal basis for executive privilege is derived from the separation of powers doctrine and the need for confidentiality in executive branch communications. While the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly mention executive privilege, the Supreme Court has recognized its existence and outlined its scope in several landmark cases.

United States v. Nixon (1974)

In United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of executive privilege in the context of the Watergate scandal. The Court held that while executive privilege is a legitimate power, it is not absolute and must be balanced against the need for evidence in criminal proceedings. The full text of the United States v. Nixon decision can be accessed here.

Cheney v. United States District Court (2004)

In Cheney v. United States District Court, the Supreme Court further clarified the scope of executive privilege, emphasizing the need to protect the confidentiality of executive branch deliberations. The Court ruled that lower courts must carefully consider the separation of powers when evaluating claims of executive privilege. The full text of the Cheney v. United States District Court decision can be accessed here.

Invocation of Executive Privilege

The President or a high-level executive branch official must formally invoke executive privilege to withhold information. This invocation typically involves a written statement outlining the reasons for asserting the privilege and the specific information being withheld.

Limitations and Challenges

Executive privilege is not absolute and can be challenged in court. Courts may require the executive branch to provide evidence or testimony if the need for the information outweighs the interest in maintaining confidentiality. Additionally, Congress can challenge the invocation of executive privilege through legislative measures or by seeking judicial intervention.

State Secrets Privilege

Definition and Purpose

The state secrets privilege is a legal doctrine that allows the government to withhold information in legal proceedings if disclosing it would harm national security. This privilege is intended to protect sensitive information related to military operations, intelligence activities, and other national security matters.

The state secrets privilege is rooted in common law and has been recognized by the Supreme Court in several cases. Key legal instruments and guidelines include:

Reynolds v. United States (1953)

In Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court formally recognized the state secrets privilege, allowing the government to withhold evidence in a lawsuit if disclosing it would endanger national security. The Court established a balancing test to determine when the privilege should be upheld. The full text of the Reynolds v. United States decision can be accessed here.

Policies and Procedures Governing Invocation of the State Secrets Privilege

The Department of Justice has established policies and procedures for invoking the state secrets privilege, ensuring that it is used appropriately and only when necessary to protect national security. These guidelines require a thorough review process and approval by the Attorney General. The full text of the policies and procedures can be accessed here.

Invocation and Judicial Review

To invoke the state secrets privilege, the government must submit a formal claim, supported by affidavits from senior officials, explaining why disclosure would harm national security. Courts then review the claim and determine whether the privilege should be upheld. In some cases, courts may conduct an in-camera review of the evidence to assess the validity of the government's claim.

The invocation of the state secrets privilege can significantly impact legal proceedings, potentially leading to the dismissal of cases or the exclusion of critical evidence. Courts must carefully balance the need to protect national security with the rights of litigants to a fair trial.

Access to Classified Information

Eligibility and Clearance Process

Access to classified information is restricted to individuals who have been granted the appropriate security clearance. The clearance process involves a thorough background investigation to assess an individual's trustworthiness and reliability. Key steps in the clearance process include:

  1. Application: The individual submits a security clearance application, providing detailed personal and professional information.
  2. Background Investigation: Investigators conduct interviews, review records, and verify the information provided in the application.
  3. Adjudication: The results of the background investigation are reviewed to determine whether the individual meets the criteria for a security clearance.
  4. Issuance: If approved, the individual is granted a security clearance and authorized to access classified information at the appropriate level.

The legal framework for granting and managing security clearances is established through various statutes, executive orders, and regulations. Key legal instruments include:

Executive Order 12968

Executive Order 12968, signed by President Bill Clinton on August 2, 1995, outlines the procedures for granting access to classified information. It establishes the criteria for eligibility, the process for conducting background investigations, and the responsibilities of agencies in managing security clearances. The full text of Executive Order 12968 can be accessed here.

U.S. Code Title 50, Chapter 44, Subchapter VI

Title 50 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 44, Subchapter VI, provides the statutory basis for the security clearance process, including the criteria for eligibility and the procedures for conducting background investigations. The full text of this subchapter can be accessed here.

Denial and Revocation of Clearances

Security clearances can be denied or revoked if an individual is found to pose a security risk. Common reasons for denial or revocation include:

  1. Criminal Conduct: Evidence of criminal behavior or associations with criminal organizations.
  2. Financial Issues: Significant debt, bankruptcy, or other financial problems that may indicate vulnerability to coercion.
  3. Substance Abuse: History of drug or alcohol abuse that may impair judgment or reliability.
  4. Foreign Influence: Close ties to foreign nationals or governments that may pose a risk of espionage.

Individuals who are denied or have their security clearance revoked have the right to appeal the decision through an administrative review process.


Secrecy and national security are vital to the effective functioning of the government and the protection of the nation. The legal frameworks governing classified information and executive privilege are designed to balance the need for confidentiality with the principles of transparency and accountability. By understanding these legal principles and the processes involved, individuals and entities can navigate the complexities of national security law and ensure the protection of sensitive information.

For further information, please refer to the following official resources:

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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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