Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information

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When classified intelligence is disclosed to the general public or to a foreign entity, it becomes a serious matter of national security. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush said the following in relation to guarding classified information:

"Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret. My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence, and what the intelligence says. That's for the protection of the American people."

Whether we agree that keeping select information "secret," is really best for the American people or not, the truth is that unauthorized disclosure of classified information in the United States is a crime under the Espionage Act of 1917. Those who are found in violation of this crime against the government face broad and wide-ranging criminal sanctions.

Follow along as we discuss the details of how a person can be in violation of the law against unauthorized disclosure of classified information and where to go for legal help if you're charged with a federal crime.

Unauthorized Disclosure Laws Explained

There are several federal laws prohibiting the leaking of classified information. Here we'll focus on one specific statute, Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 798. This law prohibits the knowing and willful transmittal of specified classified information to an unauthorized person, but it pertains only to information relating to the communications intelligence systems and activities of the United States. This means a person is in violation of the law if they knowingly and willfully perform any of the following acts involving confidential information:

  • communicate, furnish, transmit, or otherwise make it available to an unauthorized person; or
  • publish it; or
  • use it in a way that's either (1) prejudicial to the safety or interest of the U.S., or (2) for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the U.S.

The penalty for this crime is up to 10 years in prison, a large fine, or both.

What's Considered Classified Information?

In order to better understand this law, it's important to also understand the type of confidential information that the statute applies to. For purposes of this statute, information is considered classified if it:

  • concerns the nature, preparation, or use of any code, cipher, or cryptographic system of the U.S. or any foreign government;
  • concerns the design, construction, use, maintenance, or repair of any device used, prepared, or planned for use by the U.S. or any foreign government for cryptographic or communication intelligence purposes;
  • concerns the communication intelligence activities of the U.S. or any foreign government; or
  • is obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government.

More generally, classified information means information which, at the time of a violation, is specifically designated by a U.S. Government Agency for limited or restricted dissemination or distribution (for reasons of national security). Or, put another way, it's information created or received by an agency of the federal government or a government contractor that would damage national security if improperly released.

The government has a number of ways it labels information as classified, but one specific way is through the following labeling system:

  • TOP SECRET, which is the highest level.
  • SECRECT, which would cause "serious damage" if released.
  • CONFIDENTIAL, which is the lowest level.

Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information: Additional Resources

Arrested for Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information? Get Legal Help

You don't have to be leaking classified government intelligence to the public in order to be charged with a federal crime. There are a wide range of actions that can be considered criminal in the eyes of the government. If you're being investigated or have been charged with a federal crime, contact a qualified criminal defense attorney to learn about your rights and options.

Next Steps

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