Confusion over security classification persists here in the Forum. Some basic concepts may deliver some clarity.
It is important to realize that information may be sensitive with respect to national security whether or not it is classified. By the same token, information that is classified may or may not be sensitive with respect to national security.
The whole point of the classification system is to protect sensitive information, but whether information requires or deserves protection is beyond the scope of the operation of the classification system.
This distinction between information content and its classification makes it easier to understand how the classification system works. Once a classification authority determines that information requires protection, the next step is to determine to what extent it is sensitive. There are three sensitivity ratings:
- Low: unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe (Confidential)
- Medium: unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe (Secret)
- High: unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe (Top Secret)
Note that disclosure of sensitive information may be authorized under a number of circumstances, regardless of its sensitivity level. For example, the classification authority may judge that sensitive information may be disclosed in the public interest. Also, information that has been classified for more than 10 years automatically becomes eligible for disclosure unless steps are taken to extend its classification for up to 25 years.
Note, too, that for sensitive information to be given a classification, the classification authority must be able to identify or describe the damage to national security that would occur should unauthorized disclosure occur. Should the identified or described damage cease to be a risk, no damage to national security by unauthorized disclosure can occur.
It is not unusual for information that once was sensitive to be overtaken by events. Should unauthorized disclosure of classified information that is no longer sensitive occur, there is little reason to regard the disclosure as improper, even if it was unauthorized.
Unclassified information also may sometimes become sensitive and require protection. For example, when several items of unclassified, individually non-sensitive information are combined, the resulting whole may convey concepts that are potentially sensitive with respect to national security.
In the end, the issue with classification is not classification itself, but national security. Things that once were sensitive with respect to national security can become no longer sensitive, and things that never were sensitive can become sensitive. Both can occur regardless of classification status.
We must judge Donald Trump’s possession of classified material at Mar-a-Lago in light of all the above considerations. All presidents leave office with sensitive documents. Presumptively, though not by statute (as far as I know), a former president has no authority to disclose sensitive information related to national security. But so long as a former president does not commit an unauthorized disclosure, there can be no impact on national security. The classification status of documents in an ex-president’s possession is quite irrelevant when they remain undisclosed.