National security is a lifetime career. Many professionals may fail to realize that once you’ve spent a stint in an intelligence job, you’ll need to keep some secrets for the rest of your life. That failure can result in forfeting your book profits or spending time in jail. Spies who held their classified documents for decades before releasing it, and books written by intelligence professionals based on events which seemingly happened ions ago are in the news today. And they remind us of the lifetime pledge to secrecy cleared professionals make to the United States.

When you are granted your national security clearance you sign a form (SF-312 or its preceding forms), the “Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement” which is an agreement between you and the United States. You see, this pledge of secrecy is a lifetime commitment to maintain those secrets until such time as the secret is officially declassified.

The pertinent portion of the form concerning the lifetime commitment reads:

“Unless and until I am released in writing by an authorized representative of the United States Government, I understand that all conditions and obligations imposed upon me by this Agreement apply during the time I am granted access to classified information, and at all times thereafter.”

Espionage: the long tail of leaked secrets

With respect to espionage, we have seen recent cases with their genesis many years ago be prosecuted today.

For example, Alexander Ma worked with the CIA for a period in the 1980s, yet some 12 years after leaving the CIA, he revealed classified information to the Chinese Ministry of State Security. The criminal complaint filed specifically noted how Ma and his co-conspirator (believed to be his father) had “signed several nondisclosure agreements in which they acknowledged both the harm that could result from the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and the applicability of criminal penalties should they make in violation of their security oaths disclosure of such information to persons not authorized to receive it.”

The same measure was applied to former CIA employee Jerry Lee who years after leaving service was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to sharing information, he knew to be classified, with the Chinese MSS. As in the case of Ma, the DOJ made clear that Lee was violating the terms of his secrecy agreement and thus would be subject to the applicable criminal sanctions.

Writers: forfeiting royalties absent review

For authors, the need to submit their manuscripts for review is also addressed and when one doesn’t, they may find themselves facing off with the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court, as was the case of Edward Snowden when the court ordered his forfeiture of millions in royalties.

When you are thinking of writing that memoir or a topical piece which touches on classified information, the publication review board within the appropriate agency or department must have the opportunity to review prior to publication. Without doing so, you may lose any royalties or payments.

“I hereby assign to the United States Government all royalties, remunerations, and emoluments that have resulted, will result or may result from any disclosure, publication, or revelation of classified information not consistent with the terms of this Agreement.”

Important debriefing tip

A key takeaway from the Lee case is the fact that on his way out the door in 2007, Lee signed a CIA security exit form in which he attested, “I give my assurance that there is no classified material in my possession, custody or control at this time.”

Every Facility Security Officer should ensure a similar document is signed as part of the debriefing process at their facility and a reminder to every individual as to their lifetime commitment to the United States to keep the nation’s secrets secret.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of