In answer to your question, should you ever ask; yes, it does exist, and, yes, it is, or was, available in red. The company, see the caption above, was located in Richardson, Texas, and I worked there a few years. My last task before leaving Electrospace was reworking some software for the Defense Red Switch Network. Electrospace had the contract to produce the Secure Digital Switch (SDS), and they also manufactured the phones pictured above. During my last days before leaving to take a job at another company I was working on the code that runs on the processor inside this phone.
I tell all this because of the irony. Former Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently running for President, and political foes are making a great fuss about her misuse of government secure communications. News talking heads are commenting, and media advisors are weighing in, and nobody seems to be conveying a clear picture of what is involved in the United States government security framework. A Facebook friend of mine is experiencing similar consternation and has posted the following:
Grrr! It drives me nuts to hear political operatives, who have never had to handle classified information, try to justify the unjustifiable. If you’ve been briefed on handling classified information, and you receive classified information (marked or not) on an unclassified computer, it’s a “data leak” and there are specific actions that you are required to take. Surely, the Secretary of State is briefed on handling classified information and is intelligent enough to know what is and is not classified based on its content and not its marking.
I heartedly agree with Jim on this. Nobody seems to be getting the entire picture out. All this drives me toward providing some low-level explanation and a little insight into how it all works. Some of the stories are amusing.
First, a one-paragraph tutorial on security classifications. Wikipedia has the explanation:
Top secret is the highest level of classified information. Information is further compartmented so that specific access using a code word after top secret is a legal way to hide collective and important information. Such material would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security if made publicly available. Prior to 1942, the UK and other members of the British Empire used Most Secret, but this was changed to match the US’s Top Secret to simplify Allied interoperability.
The Washington Post reports in an investigation entitled Top Secret America, that per 2010 “An estimated 854,000 people … hold top-secret security clearances” in the United States.
Secret material would cause “serious damage” to national security if it were publicly available.
In the United States, operational “Secret” information can be marked with an additional “LIMDIS”, to limit readership.
Confidential material would cause damage or be prejudicial to national security if publicly available.
There are others, but these are the pertinent ones. Here is some explanation:
Almost every government employee, by virtue the screening and hiring process, is endowed with a confidential clearance. That was my first experience. As a crew member aboard an aircraft carrier, I worked for a time in the division office, where I had access to everybody’s personnel files. That information is typical of government confidential information.
Next up the ladder is secret information and secret clearances. You don’t automatically get a secret clearance. You get fingerprinted, and the prints are retained by the FBI. Government investigators are sent out to talk to your friends and neighbors. Your past is searched for felony convictions. Signs of reckless living, including DWI convictions and notorious gambling, will get your secret clearance pulled. It is possible to get a top level security clearance despite previous use of illegal drugs, but some intense investigation is involved. I have been a party to such an investigation. You must report all foreign travel and provide a list of all contacts during your trip. You are reminded that Canada and Mexico are foreign countries. This is serious business. Some jobs require a secret clearance, and you can lose your job if your clearance is pulled. A woman I worked with on a classified program had a nervous breakdown. Her clearance was pulled, and she lost her job.
Top secret is the highest of note. It’s like secret, but an order of magnitude more intense. Before you get a TS clearance the FBI is going to really drill down on your life and character. Being related to a foreign national can be a roadblock. You will likely, as ridiculous as it may sound, be required to take a polygraph examination.
Measures to ensure the containment of classified information can border on the extreme. In one instance where I worked as a contractor, a file containing classified information was copied to a server on an unsecure network. Enormous expense was applied to cleanse the server and all connected systems.
Generally, enclosures (rooms) built for processing classified information have no connections with the outside world. There may be phones, but cell phones have to be parked outside the door. The computer processing the classified software is in the same room with the terminals used by the developers, else there is a secure connection (inside a metal conduit) connecting the computer room with the workers. In case terminals with outside connections (to the Internet) are allowed inside the secure area, the unsecure terminals must be kept physically separate from the classified terminals—usually on the opposite side of the developer’s cubical.
There is a procedure named secure download employed to remove unclassified files from a secure system.
- If the file is a document or an image, print it to a printer on the secure network. Examine the document visually and confirm it contains no classified information.
- Copy the file to an external medium (e.g., a CD), and examine the file bit by bit to verify no classified information is embedded in an otherwise innocent-looking document or image.
At Electrospace we built systems fielded by the Army. These systems had secret operational software on computer hard drives. I was informed that each hard drive enclosure was equipped with a shaped charge to be detonated in the event of imminent capture. The blast would pierce the drives in an instant, rendering them unreadable.
One guy on our project needed his clearance upgraded. He needed to take a polygraph examination. He failed it. They flew him to Washington for a re-exam. I’m thinking that failed, as well.
I had to take computer drives containing classified software to Fort Hood. Under the control of our security people the drives were carefully wrapped and marked for transport. I rented a van, loaded up the drives, and started my own drive. Before I had cleared Central Expressway in Dallas I was regretting passing up a bathroom break before starting out. Somewhere along I-35 I really needed to go. I was not allowed to let the van out of my sight. I stopped along the I-35 service road and relieved myself behind the van.
When I arrived at Fort Hood, I had to get the attention of somebody inside the office where I was supposed to deliver the drives. I could not go inside and leave the van unattended even for a few seconds. Based on my recommendation, I do believe we changed our procedures and never allowed a person to make the trip alone.
There three ways secret documents can be materially transported.
- Hand carry the items by a person with the appropriate clearance.
- Ship the items by a secure transfer company.
- Wrap them appropriately and send the items by United States mail.
A story of interest: One company worked on what are called black programs. All work was carried out in severely-enclosed areas. They were rooms within rooms. The names of the programs were not spoken. Nobody was allowed inside the area alone. There always had to be at least two people inside or else there had to be nobody inside. To remove any document, even a paperback novel, required examination. If you wanted to bring out a document, it had to be printed and made available for examination. If a disk or a tape (or now a flash drive) went in, it never came out. A computer was stolen from one such facility.
Now for a reality check.
Before obtaining a secret or top secret clearance you will be required to sign a form that acknowledges you can be sentenced to death for revealing classified information. There’s more. Every single one of the spies working for our government who sold secrets to foreign agents had secret or top secret clearances. All had taken and passed polygraph examinations.
Full disclaimer: I do not presently have in my possession nor do I retain inside my brain any government classified information. Torture me if you will, you’re not going to get anything. This situation is straight forward to attain.
- Make it a point to never look at any classified information unless it is absolutely necessary to do your job. This turned out to be easy for me, because, although I held a clearance, my job often did not require me to make use of classified information.
- Once you read something classified, endeavor to get it out of your mind as soon as possible. Of special interest: In a document, a book, a manual, a memo, each page has a header and footer in bold print stating SECRET or UNCLASSIFIED. If the header/footer says SECRET, then there is some secret stuff on the page. Each paragraph in the document will have a U or an S in front. If the paragraph has an S, then the paragraph contains the secret stuff. That helps people keep straight what they need to avoid reading and what to forget as soon as possible.
There is another critical rule regarding classified information. That rule is spelled need to know. You may have a secret clearance, but if you do not have the need to know, then classified information will be denied to you. If you are smart, you will never attempt to access classified information unless you really have a need to know.
That brings us to candidate Clinton. Her critics are charging she willingly or accidentally (it does not matter which) exposed classified information. Clinton’s defenders are contending that the information in question became classified only after she handled it, inappropriately as it turned out. This is where I get a laugh. Allow me to relate a story. No classified information is disclosed in the following.
I worked on a program called Smart Weapons. The idea was to put intelligence into drone aircraft (in this case a Tomahawk missile) and send it out to hunt and destroy enemy targets independent of ground control. The drone would have multiple imaging systems, including laser radar, infra red imaging, and television-like video. It was the infra red (FLIR) imagery that proved problematic. We were working in partnership with another defense contractor that produced FLIR systems and had accumulated a large library of imagery. We needed that to test and to train our system. We acquired large quantities of magnetic computer tape containing image files. The problem was the imagery was classified secret.
In order to use the FLIR imagery we had to construct a secure storage room to house the boat load of tapes. We also had to place all computers and terminals used for software development inside a specially-constructed secure room. When I went to St. Louis to produce and obtain reels of tape, I had to transport these reels of tape with me on my return trip to Dallas. This was in the late 1980s, but even then there was an issue with bringing aboard a commercial airliner a package wrapped in brown paper, which package was not allowed to be x-rayed or opened for inspection. A letter with the proper signatures got me through airport security.
This program went on for several years. And here is the funny part. The same imagery that was classified as secret on our project was being used on another project involving our defense contractor associate. And on this program the imagery was unclassified. It was OK to publish it in The New York Times. You want another laugh? Here it is. After much back and forth with the agency in charge of our program we got the imagery declassified, for our project. Off came the door to the room housing the computer tapes. There was nothing left to do but laugh, because the alternative was to go insane.
And that is what I am reminded of when I hear Clinton’s supporters saying the stuff she handled was not classified at the time she handled it, but became classified only at the insistence of another agency. By this time the information in question had already been compromised, left exposed for all who wished to see. There was really no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Laugh if you want, but that is how our security classification system works.
Is candidate Clinton out of the woods? By no means. As long as there is a Republican party there will be a campaign to stick a Discloser in Chief label on her:
The FBI is ready to indict Hillary Clinton and if its recommendation isn’t followed by the U.S. attorney general, the agency’s investigators plan to blow the whistle and go public with their findings, former U.S. House Majority leader Tom DeLay tells Newsmax TV.
“I have friends that are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict,” DeLay said Monday on “The Steve Malzberg Show.”
Clinton’s opponents have been saying this stuff for months. It’s going to be interesting what they have to say a year from now.
There has been a continuation of this discussion. I am updating the post to extend the remarks.
Jim Medding John, There are emails in which Clinton directed her subordinates to remove classified markings before sending information to her. You can stand by Clinton, again, but the FBI does have the final word and you are likely to find that your loyalty is misplaced.
John Blanton If you know me, you know my loyalty is to the truth. See this through to the conclusion.
Jim Medding You might be loyal to what you call the truth, but your posting didn’t explain “originating classification authority.” Furthermore you’re ha-ha-ing your way past other possible charges like violation of the Federal Records Act and pay-for-play between her role as SoS, entities wanting favorable decisions and funds transferred to Bubba (for speeches) or their foundation. There’s a reason why she’s feeling the Bern from other Democrats.
John Blanton What I call the truth should, in fact, be the truth. If there is anything I have printed that is not true, then now is the time to set me straight. I am always willing to concede to the truth.
Jim Medding The truth without all pertinent facts is somewhat less than the truth. SoS does not have the authority to declassify material classified by some other originating classification authority. This is a fact that I think you should be aware of but neglected to include in your post.
At this point I promised to update the post to include Jim’s additional comments and also to provide readers with some additional insight into the classification process. Jim mentioned the Federal Records Act. He also brought up the matter of who has the ability to declassify items. Here is the pertinent requirement:
Executive Order 13526 establishes the mechanisms for most declassifications, within the laws passed by Congress. The originating agency assigns a declassification date, by default 10 years. After 25 years declassification review is automatic, with nine narrow exceptions that allow information to continue to be classified. At 50 years there are two exceptions, and classifications beyond 75 years require special permission. Because of changes in policy and circumstances, agencies are expected to actively review documents that have been classified for fewer than 25 years. They must also respond to Mandatory Declassification Review and Freedom of Information Act requests. The National Archives and Records Administration houses the National Declassification Center to coordinate reviews and Information Security Oversight Office to promulgate rules and enforce quality measures across all agencies. NARA reviews documents on behalf of defunct agencies and permanently stores declassified documents for public inspection. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel has representatives from several agencies.
The foregoing does not make clear that declassification of information that was classified by one agency cannot be unilaterally declassified by another, but I am sure it’s the case. The State Department cannot declassify data which has previously been assigned a security classification by, for example, the Department of Defense.
Jim takes me to task for not bringing this up in the first place. I did not bring this up in the original post, because it was not pertinent to the ongoing discussion, besides being fairly common knowledge to the people who have responded so far to this post.