Imagine that you wake up tomorrow, saunter outside for the morning paper, and open it to discover classified information splashed across the front page. If you follow the news at all, this scenario probably doesn’t take much imagining. From the infamous “Pentagon Papers” to more recent leakers like Edward Snowden and Reality Winner, classified information gets leaked to the press regularly, and the press regularly publishes it.
Besides whatever interest or outrage the story generates, most members of the public don’t give it another thought. They don’t think about things like the potential exposure of intelligence sources and methods to our adversaries, or the loss of confidence from our allies in our ability to protect shared secrets.
As a security clearance holder, perhaps you do think about those things. You certainly know that you have an obligation to protect classified information, and to only read it when you have a demonstrable “need to know.” But in a situation like this, where the proverbial beans have already been spilled, what does it matter if you read the story just like the rest of the world?
Does it Matter?
Many observers, including your author, argue that it doesn’t matter. The damage has already been done by virtue of the publication itself. The people the government should be least concerned about reading the article are those who are already cleared to some degree, even if not to the level of the information at issue.
Unfortunately, the government disagrees. While you’re not going to be prosecuted for merely reading a news story containing classified information, the government can – and occasionally does – take administrative action like security clearance revocation against security clearance-holders found to have engaged in such behavior.
How Does the Government Find Out?
These situations are rare; whether you’ve read a news story containing classified information is not even a topic covered on the SF-86. When they do occur, the discovery is usually a result of a polygraph examination during which an applicant divulges the information in response to a question about exceeding one’s scope of access or “need-to-know.”
I’ve seen it happen a couple of times in my career when the clearance-holder admitted actively seeking out the published information as opposed to merely being a passive consumer. In both cases the government argued that the information was still classified notwithstanding its publication and that the clearance-holder should have known better. Those are both legitimate points; but whether they translate into sufficiently poor judgment to warrant revoking a security clearance is another matter entirely.
Most clearance holders don’t need to exert a lot of mental energy worrying about this. You can’t help whether the media publishes classified information; you just need to know what to do about it when it inevitably happens. The answer is simple: nothing. Make a choice not to read the article at issue and move on with your day. If the presence of classified information isn’t apparent until you’ve already started reading the article, stop reading when it does become apparent and again move on with your day. That’s really about all the government can ask.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.