By order of the President, the Nunes Memo was declassified. If you look at the page headers of the memo, you can see it was classified as TOP SECRET, i.e. Such material would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security if made publicly available.

What part of that memo has this potential? That there is a FISC issuing FISA warrants? The public knew that already. That the warrant to electronically surveil Carter Page was renewed three times? Something else?

Or is it just common practice to classify all documents of that committee as TOP SECRET, even in the absence of sensitive information?

  • Surely not everything labeled TOP SECRET really is.I would probably go for that option. Feb 6, 2018 at 8:48

5 Answers 5


It was the FBI/Justice department that classified the information in the memo, not the committee. Example source:

The details of FISA surveillance orders are classified, and they have long been among the government’s most carefully guarded national security secrets.

It's not just that they were issuing them, but also the details of the issuance, e.g. when the order was issued, who issued it, and the justification given. The traditional government position has been that all of the details are classified and any information dervived from them is also classified.

For example, someone (e.g. a Russian counter-intelligence agent) may look at the original warrant and observe what activity led to it. Russia could then use that information to either avoid that situation (so a warrant is never issued) or deliberately provoke such a situation (causing a warrant to be issued). It would tend to do the former if it was trying to collect information and the latter if it was trying to plant false information.

With the change of administrations, much of this information is no longer relevant. Moreover, what is still relevant may be less valuable as a secret than for transparency. This is especially so since the underlying information has been leaking continually since Donald Trump took office. In particular, information regarded as negative to Trump has been leaking from people like James Comey and Sally Yates. Since Trump controls the administration, he doesn't have to leak. He can openly release the information.

Members of Congress can also openly disclose classified information in committee. That precedent was set with the Pentagon Papers:

in 1971, Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska read the Pentagon Papers into the record of a subcommittee he chaired, at a hearing he called for specifically this purpose. The Supreme Court called Gravel’s claim of immunity “incontrovertible.”

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    Please explain "With the change of administrations, much of this information is no longer relevant."
    – FooBar
    Feb 3, 2018 at 17:36
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    Please explain WHO classified the memo (not the information contained, but the actual memo itself. Did the committee members label the memo, or did committee send an unclassified memo to the DOJ/FBI and they labeled it "TOP SECRET"?
    – BobE
    Feb 3, 2018 at 19:24
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    @FooBar: Knowing how to influence a former attorney general helps with future intelligence actions in only a weak sense.
    – Ben Voigt
    Feb 4, 2018 at 3:37
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    @BobE When you create a document using information from another classified document, the derivative document becomes classified. Usually each paragraph in a classified document is individually classified, but that's not always true. So a lot of the information in the doc was pulled from classified paragraphs in source documentation and derivative classifiers have to honor that. Thus the document is classified TS.
    – MattPark
    Feb 4, 2018 at 15:38

There are some excellent answers here. There are two things I'd add:

  1. Nunes edited the memo in the hours prior to its release. I'm not suggesting anything nefarious in this particular, but there may have been some last-minute changes to remove those elements, knowing that POTUS was likely to fully declassify it without redactions;

  2. While much of it has been removed, there are still some chronological details that could compromise intelligence sources and methods. For example, if an adversary knows the exact date a conversation was surveilled, who was being surveilled (in this case Page), it's not hard to figure out who the other participant(s) were to that conversation (especially when the contents/topic(s) of the conversation are known). This kind of information seems trivial to the average observer, but it's not -- it risks exposing/burning double agents and other intelligence assets.

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    agree with your second point in particular, however I would also add that someone considering becoming a confidential informant would have cause to believe that they may be exposed - because now the FBI cannot assure confidentiality. IMHO this whole episode should have been handled by the agency that is specifically empowered to "investigate the investigators" - The office of the Inspector General.
    – BobE
    Feb 4, 2018 at 15:53
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    Whole-heartedly agree, @BobE. The national security cost of this release will be immense and wide-ranging. In many ways, the success of our NatSec apparatus over the past generation or so is due to it being carefully and intentionally insulated from the reach of partisan/electoral politics. The assumption underlying this of course was that while there might be Republican, Democrat, Green, libertarian, and independent sects within the American "tribe", at the end of the day we are all supposedly on the same team - Team America.
    – Anthony
    Feb 4, 2018 at 23:14
  • It's a convenient excuse to claim "national security interests" to cover up wrong-doing. You want the office of the inspector general to investigate the investigators? Well were have they been for the last year? Accused wrong-doing by Obama appointees has been going on for a long time now, not just since the memo. And there's actually been REAL evidence supporting the accusations, unlike Trump collaborating. Unfortunately, it has become clear to any objective observer that no federal agency can be trusted to be able to perform a honest and unbiased investigation into any of these matters.
    – Dunk
    Feb 7, 2018 at 22:54

According to Wired, the new information is that the application for a FISA extension was partly based on the Steele dossier, which was partly funded by Democrats. The memo also alleges that this funding was not presented to the FISA court.

As the Wired article suggests, if this were true to the extent alleged by Republicans (which is disputed by -- among others -- the FBI and Democrats familiar with the underlying documents), it would "reveal legitimate lapses in the FISA system". FISA is already perceived negatively because of secret courts with no possibility to defend. Despite this criticism, former administrations as well as the current one consider it essential to national security. Thus documents which delegitimize FISA can be seen as dangerous to national security.

Apart from the FISA delegitimization, it seems that the documents the memo is based on are top secret, so the memo is classified like that as well to avoid accidental leakage of information. An official review by the DOJ could make sure that no information in the memo is actually top secret, but Republicans rejected such a review, which the DOJ called "extraordinarily reckless".

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    One important detail: The directives which govern what may and may not be classified expressly prohibit classifying a document in order to prevent embarrassment to an individual or agency. They also state that any doubt about the proper classification level is to be resolved by classifying the material at the lowest level among the levels believed to be appropriate. Sure, the DOJ said it was reckless, but if they can't say specifically why it's reckless, then it looks more like a cover-up than a legitimate exercise.
    – EvilSnack
    Feb 3, 2018 at 18:38
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    I feel pretty confident in saying that the laws governing classified documents does not have an escape clause that excludes penalty for release of information because something is "an open secret". I'm also confident that acknowledgment of the existence of, or the number of renewals of a FISA application for a specific individual is protected under classification.
    – BobE
    Feb 4, 2018 at 4:14
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    @EvilSnack : Two points: I think it was reckless to publish without allowing the DoJ to check for important information; there may be nothing there, but the might be. Secondly, now the memo has been published, there is no way on God's earth that DoJ is going to say "this is the juicy bit". As it is, there is still a possibility that the opponents just won't notice. Feb 5, 2018 at 10:34
  • FWIW, THE DOJ, THE FBI, the White House and the entire house of representatives ALL had the opportunity to review the document prior to its release. Any issues regarding classification that had merit were addressed. Additionally, we don't need any documents delegitimizing FISA. The DoJ, the FBI and the judge's granting the warrants did a fine job for making a case to either totally overhaul the entire system or get rid of it entirely. The left is so concerned that Trump may have talked to a Russian but they are ok with the obvious abuse of power in order to spy on an opponent's campaign.
    – Dunk
    Feb 7, 2018 at 23:03
  • @Dunk But most of those had reservations, and their complaints weren't addresses. "The left" also has plenty of complaints about FISA in the past (I would argue more so than the right). You make it seem like there is some sort of deep state conspiracy taking over the DoJ, FBI, etc. But there is aboslutely no evidence for that, or for any spying on the Trump campaign. If you do have information about this, and want to know the accuracy or implications, please feel free to open a question about it.
    – tim
    Feb 9, 2018 at 23:16

Well, if nothing else, the names of the people who signed the warrants had to be top secret. In fact, it's been reported that DOJ wanted the names redacted even after the declassification of the memo became imminent.

  • Why did the names have to be top secret when the law clearly states who must sign off on FISA warrant applications? There's no secret in that, it's part of the law. It is clear why they wanted names redacted. It allows them to continue with the cover up. Real names can be used to verify the claims in the document. Thus, you don't see any democrats claiming anything in the memo is a lie, because facts are facts. Redacting the names would give credence to any claim that the memo has lies in it because there'd be no way to verify the claims.
    – Dunk
    Feb 7, 2018 at 23:10
  • @Dunk, the law dictates the group of people from which the signers must come. But who were the actual people from that group can be classified because it may (or may not depending on who they were) give away something about the investigation. I am not advocating for or against the names remaining classified, btw. I am simply answering the question why some of the information in the memo has made it classified. I am also not saying that the names should have remained classified after the memo was declassified. I only said what information in the memo could be classified while the memo was. Feb 7, 2018 at 23:23
  • I get your point and in general it has merit. However, blindly following any policy such as "names should remain classified" is bad policy. Each and every name that is redacted should have a reason for being redacted. You'd be hard pressed to find any national security issues involved in releasing any of the names in the memo, unless you want to count exposing corruption in the federal bureaucracy a national security issue that needs to be kept a secret.
    – Dunk
    Feb 8, 2018 at 0:16
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    At some point, hiding behind "national security"/"it's classified" has to be nullified. The fact that many of those involved in corruptly obtaining the warrants were still in a position of power to prevent internal mechanisms from dealing with the behavior AND that they were still actively participating in activities related to the inappropriately obtained warrants is justification to declassify both the existence of the warrants and the names. Exposing the names greatly eliminates the ability of those still in power from being able to corrupt the investigative process into their behavior.
    – Dunk
    Feb 8, 2018 at 17:20
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    Additionally, upon further investigation into the whole FISA thing, it turns out that the FISA court is a joke. Out of some 18 thousand FISA applications only 4 have ever been denied. That is clear demonstration that once again the judicial branch fails to do their job properly as there is no possible way that only 4 of 18k applications did not have sufficient justification. That doesn't even account for the statistical impossibility that at most only 4 weren't filled out properly.
    – Dunk
    Feb 8, 2018 at 17:27

There may not have been any TOP SECRET information in the memo to start with.

When summarizing information from a document marked TOP SECRET, it would be safe to mark any summary similarly. That's because very few people are empowered to make the classification decisions. They are called the classifying authority. The president delegates his authority to those classifying authorities, and so he can override any classification decision.

So if you are doing any kind of copy/paste into a document, the safe thing is to mark it identically to the source document. Generally speaking, Congress and its staff are NOT classification authorities, but they can have clearances to look at classified documents. If they slip up and reveal something TOP SECRET, they would probably lose their clearances.

The remaining redactions, such as individual names, are not necessarily classified, because personally, identifiable information (PII) can (in fact should) be redacted without being classified.

P.S. This is exactly the area where Hillary Clinton (HRC) and her staff really screwed up. It is clear that her staff copied information from classified documents without properly marking the copies, and then sent them via unclassified e-mail/text to HRC. Of course, HRC claimed she didn't know the information was classified. Preventing people claiming they didn't know is the whole reason for the classification marking system.

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