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Facts Matter

How classified intelligence works

President Trump retweeted a report Tuesday from Fox News — sourced by anonymous U.S. intelligence officials — regarding North Korean missile movements. When asked for comment on the story later on Fox & Friends, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley refused to comment because the report dealt with "classified information."

Why it matters:

This isn't the first time that President Trump has been accused of sharing classified information — think back to May, when he told Russian officials about highly sensitive Israeli intel on ISIS in the Oval Office. And while the level of classification on the North Korean material is unknown, the information Trump shared with the Russians was reportedly designated as "code word" — even higher than top secret — so national security experts are worried about that foreign allies might refuse to work closely with the U.S. in the future should sensitive intelligence leaks keep coming from the president himself.

The facts:

Heads of various departments who own the information can designate it as "classified" and set the rules for declassification, per an Obama-era executive order. There are three levels of classification based on the severity of damage a disclosure would cause:

  • Top secret — "exceptionally grave damage to the national security"
  • Secret — "serious damage to the national security"
  • Confidential — "damage to the national security"

Bottom line: As commander-in-chief, a president has constitutional powers to classify and declassify information (and after declassifying it, disclose the information). Under the Espionage Act, anyone else's disclosure of classified information is a felony, and they could lose their job or security clearance, and face jail time.