The basic classification levels, in ascending order, are CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, and TOP SECRET. These levels each have a corresponding definition, and can be assigned to information by most federal agencies. For instance, Top Secret means “information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”
Alongside these classifications, intelligence agencies (e.g., CIA, NSA) put intelligence-based information into “compartments.” To access such intelligence information, one must be approved generally for “sensitive compartmented information” (called “SCI”), and for the specific compartment. More sensitive information can be further put into “subcompartments,” for which an even more limited group has access. This is often because of the highly sensitive sources and methods used to obtain it.
The baseline, high-level security clearance many national security officials receive is “TS/SCI.” This means they are cleared to see Top Secret information, and are eligible to be “read in” (i.e., granted access) to SCI compartments and subcompartments. The number and identity of people who are read into specific compartments and subcompartments is closely monitored by the intelligence agency administering it.
Overlying all of this is the concept of “need to know” – that even someone cleared at the right level and read in to the right compartments should only be granted access to particular information if they have a valid need to know it.
“Codeword” information—like what is referred to in the Washington Post report (and since been confirmed by Buzzfeed, the New York Times and Reuters)—refers generally to this highly sensitive, compartmentalized (and sub-compartmentalized) information. The term derives from the fact that a name (i.e., codeword) is assigned to each compartment or subcompartment. In some cases, these names themselves are classified.
In addition, the US receives information from foreign intelligence services, which can themselves impose additional restrictions on sharing based on their own sensitivities and requirements. Generally speaking, if the United States receives intelligence from partner government A, it would not share that information with partner government B unless A had given permission.
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