I was watching James Comey's testimony today to the Senate Intelligence Committee. One matter of discussion was the series of memos he wrote after various meetings and conversations with President Trump. The contents of some were discussed in the open meeting, and it was said that others were classified.

What determined, in this particular instance, whether a given memo was classified or not? Was it the content, for instance? I believe Comey mentioned that at least one was written on a classified laptop - I don't recall the precise wording. Would this have somehow influenced things? I know that the public information I've looked at is not very detailed, but I hope that someone can shed some light on this nonetheless.

  • My almost entirely uninformed (hence the comment as opposed to an answer) understanding is that the content of the memos is what drives what can be classified or not. If the memo was discussing matters which are "classified" then that memo inherits that classified status. Any matters which have never been classified or have been publicly declassified are public speech and therefore open to public discussion.
    – user12841
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 17:53
  • @DanK It's a bit more complicated than that. Some unclassified information might be useless by itself, but reveal classified information when combined with other unclassified pieces of information. (A good example of this would be the serial numbers on German tank parts in WWII. Useless individually, but gathering enough of them allowed the allies to estimate how many tanks were being produced.) So information that hasn't been classified might be considered Sensitive but Unclassified or marked as For Official Use Only, and require some sort of approval before it can be publicly released.
    – Ray
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 23:14

2 Answers 2


Mostly Content. If the content is classified then the notes are classified.

It also could be that the content is not classified but the people who were discussed were in classified positions(CIA, NSA, DOD, etc.) Anytime a person in one of these positions is discussed at all the document is considered classified. This is done to protect our covert assets and operations, as well as any ongoing investigations.

Or, if the information came from classified operations, then disclosing the information might reveal the existence of the operation, thus any information from a classified operation is considered classified until it has been deemed unclassified.

In addition the Director of the FBI is a classification authority. Which basically means that he can classify any document he deems necessary or prudent. So even if there is none of the above reasons to classify a document, he, or anyone else with authority, could have deemed them classified.

  • Thank you for this. The point about classification authority is interesting. I wonder how much that played into his decision to word the memos properly - but I suppose that would be getting into far too much speculation.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 18:25
  • @HDE226868 - I doubt we will ever know. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 18:40

It depends on what the subject was. Comey has (or did have) a security clearance, so he was expected to know what was or was not classified. What determines classified is something the government itself does (emphasis mine)

Classified national security information is information created or received by an agency of the federal government or a government contractor that would damage national security if improperly released. Since 1940, the President has managed the system of classifying information by executive order (E.O.); the most recent order concerning classified national security information is E.O. 13526, signed by President Obama on December 29, 2009.

Information can only be classified if an official determination is made that its unauthorized release would damage the national security. Levels of classification correspond to levels of supposed damage. E.O. 13526 specifies that information whose release would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security” is classified TOP SECRET; information whose release would cause “serious damage” is classified SECRET; CONFIDENTIAL is the lowest category of classified information currently in use. RESTRICTED is an obsolete category that was discontinued in 1953.

Classified information may take any form. Though paper documents are most common, there are classified photographs, maps, motion pictures, videotapes, databases, microfilms, hard drives, CDs, etc. Regardless of medium, classified information requires protection until it is formally declassified.

So, even thought Comey was being asked questions about his notes, it was the subject itself that kept it classified.

Let's say that he was asked about the Russia investigation. Under the Classification system it would likely be classified under

(c)   intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology;

given that the FBI was handling a counterintelligence investigation (only under the newly appointed special prosecutor has it turned criminal). That investigation would still be classified, meaning any memos about that investigation would also be classified.

  • So, even thought Comey was being asked questions about his notes, it was the subject itself that kept it classified. - I do not think we can know this for sure. In the political climate today, he may have deemed them classified to prevent their unclassified release and subsequent blowback on him Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 18:20
  • 1
    I don't know that Comey could deem anything classified. Furthermore, what would he classify them as? Section 1.4 of the standing Classification system doesn't list "potentially embarrassing memos", and it's unlikely that it would survive a classification review.
    – Machavity
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 18:29
  • epic.org/open_gov/eo_12356.html - He was a department head. He can classify his lunch menu if he wants. I am not even suggesting improperly classifing though. I am talking proactively classifying them in case someone else should claim they should have been classified and that he broke the law by releasing them. Basically erring to the side of caution on anything that could be "Questionable" Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 18:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .