Security clearance levels and what they mean

Most military members are required to hold some level of security clearance for their career fields

Security clearance levels and what they mean

(Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

By Military1 Staff

Within the government and military ranks, troops and employees handle classified information daily, and many a Hollywood movie have created drama out of the handling of “top secret” information.

But, what is the hierarchy of classified information, and what does each level mean? In an increasingly technological world, it’s important to know what level of information you’re working with and the responsibility that goes along with the classification.

Non-classification levels

Restricted: This classification was used during and before World War II, which, at the time, was ranked below confidential information.

Unclassified: Contrary to popular belief, “unclassified” is not an information designation. It is the default for information and can be passed on to no-clearance individuals.

Unclassified information can also come with caveats, such as “Sensitive But Unclassified” (SBU), “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), or “Unclassified—Law Enforcement Sensitive” (U/LES). An example would be Department of Homeland Security terror threat level increases given to law enforcement agencies.

Public Trust: Certain government positions that handle sensitive, but not classified information are considered to be public trust positions, and usually require a background check beforehand.

Classified information levels

Confidential: This is lowest level of classified information levels, and is the one most commonly handled on a daily basis. Information deemed confidential would “damage” national security if disclosed. In the military, to work in certain jobs, troops will often need to be eligible for a confidential security clearance that allows them access to those documents—only U.S. citizens are eligible, which means non-citizens are limited in their job choices.

Security clearance investigations are conducted every 10 years for persons holding confidential clearances.

Secret: This is the middle tier of the classified levels, and would cause “serious damage” to national security if disclosed. Individuals with secret security clearance are investigated every five years and re-issued their clearance.

Top Secret: This is the highest level of classified information levels and “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.” An estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S. hold Top Secret security clearance.

Additional security measures

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI): Though not considered a classification, SCI is often used in Top Secret documents to further safeguard their contents by using code words. The CIA issues code word clearances, and only individuals with that clearance can access documents designated by that specific code word.

Restricted Data/Formerly Restricted Data: Documents that contain nuclear information are considered Restricted Data. Only the Department of Energy can declassify nuclear information documents, at which time they will be considered Formerly Restricted Data.

Who issues security clearances?

For members of the military and the Department of Defense, the Defense Security Service conducts background investigations for security clearances. For other federal government officials, the Office of Personnel Management conducts security clearance background checks.

Be aware of the information you share as a member of the military or as a government employee, as the safety of national security depends on it.