Today, 7/23/18, fmr director of the CIA, fmr General Michael Hayden tweeted

I don't go back for classified briefings. Won’t have any effect on what I say or write.

in response to the news that the White House is considering ending his security clearance.

And yet on 11/7/17, the same twitter account tweeted

CIA just told me: The Dir stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections. The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.

If both of those tweets are true, that would mean that fmr General Michael Hayden got this information from the CIA without using his security clearance. I would rather not think that he was lying. I always thought he was genuine and trustworthy whenever I heard him on TV.

But the only way both of these tweets are true is if CIA provides some sort of direct information about threats to the country and its accessible even to the people without security clearance.

I am not asking if CIA provides any information to the public. Clearly, there is the CIA world factbook. But this seems like information about intelligence assessment of ongoing threats. Could he have gotten it from non-classified sources at the CIA?

Edit: there is a number of comments and answers challenging the premise of this question based on the fact that the info tweeted by Hayden was not classified. I'd like to clarify what this question is about.

I am going with the assumption that Hayden was not releasing classified information.

An analogy that I came up with is that of a lunch menu dropped into a folder marked "classified". The lunch menu doesn't become classified and it is available from other sources. To confirm that a folder contains the lunch menu, one would need clearance to examine contents of the folder. And for someone to claim that they knew that the folder contained the non-classified menu, they would also need to have the clearance to examine contents of the folder.

Analogously, Hayden needed clearance to make an inquiry unless there is a way for everyone to make a similar inquiry. If general public can't make the same types of inquiries as the ones Hayden can make due to his having clearance, then he does, in fact, use his clearance to effect what he says and writes.

Which begs the question "can the general public make the same types of inquiries and if it can, then how?"

  • 1
    Contact your local FBI field office as your first step in the process. Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 7:33
  • 5
    "nothing has changed" doesn't seem like information for which one would need a security clearance. Do you have reason to believe that this is classified information? I would assume they would tell that to anyone who asked.
    – tim
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 7:56
  • 1
    @tim, it's reasonable to assume that everything CIA does is classified unless it's been explicitly declassified. From my reading of the question, it is asking whether CIA made this info available to the public or if CIA even has any venues of making such info available. Like who is "they"? How does one ask such a question of CIA if one does not have clearance?
    – user21369
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 8:34
  • @tim I don't know why you are commenting on the content of the communication between a former CIA director and some CIA insiders when the question was not about that content. The question was about how the conversation could have occurred in a way which didn't require a security clearance. I don't really know how I can edit the question to make it more clear. But since your comment got 2 upvotes, clearly some other people also didn't see that from the way the question was phrased. So I'll ask. How would you convey this idea in the clearest way possible.
    – grovkin
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 18:36
  • 3
    @grovkinBut the content of the communication is highly significant. If they talk about the weather, that wouldn't require security clearance. If they talk about material that is classified as top secret, that would. You seem to be under the impression that anything the CIA does is automatically highly classified, and that nothing can ever be communicated to anyone who has no clearance. I don't have sources, but my impression was that this isn't the case. If your question is about whether this is the case, you might ask specifically about that, instead of making it an odd gotcha about Hayden
    – tim
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 18:59

4 Answers 4


The difference between General Hayden and the general public is that he still has contacts in the CIA that he talks with. What he's done is effectively the same as a journalist asking a person they know in the CIA about whether the CIA still stands by the report. If the contact is privy to information which would be considered For Official Use Only by the CIA or has been classified, they would likely be committing a security violation by disclosing it to General Hayden, and as he has an active clearance General Hayden would also be obligated not to share that information and report the spill if it were classified and he was not authorized to know it (or his receipt of the information was in violation of security protocol for another reason). Unless they have a similar NDA, journalists would not be legally bound to withhold disclosure. However, given that the information he received is just reiterating the CIA's public position on the report, it seems likely that the person he was talking to was in fact authorized to make such a statement to him and he was not in violation of his NDA to disseminate it.

You as a member of the general public could not compel the same person General Hayden was speaking with to tell you the same information, as you have no power as a private citizen to compel another person to say anything. You could make a FOIA request for recorded communication to the same effect, I'm not particularly well-versed in FOIA exceptions but it's unlikely the CIA could be compelled to hand over their internal unclassified communications (classified information is specifically exempt from FOIA), especially those relating to their current public policy decisions.


Just looking at the contents:

CIA just told me: The Dir stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections. The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.

This doesn't require any classified information above and beyond what the CIA Director has already publicly stated. Gen. Hayden doesn't need a security clearance to ask someone about information that is already public, nor would he need to schedule a security briefing. In the interests of national security I would imagine that this is one topic that the CIA wants people to keep repeating, given the intransigence of some.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reiterated the same message to the Senate Intelligence Committee in a public session in February of 2018, and the same committee endorsed the referenced assessment as lately as July 3rd. All of this is public knowledge.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:49

Your baseline assumption is inaccurate: you're assuming that the only two alternatives are "there is a method for any member of the general public to make this inquiry" and "this inquiry is only available to someone with a clearance." In reality, there are more differences between Michael Hayden and the average member of the public. Notably, he has served in the past as the head of two different intelligence agencies after a long career in intelligence. He knows people in the intelligence community, and has a much easier time getting someone on the phone. That's not just because of security reasons, it's because intelligence community members have plenty of things to do that aren't "talk with member of the public about security matters."

I did say "not just because of security reasons;" there are some security considerations. Not everything that isn't subject to public disclosure is actually classified. For instance, the fact that a particular person works for the CIA often doesn't meet the standards for classification, but it's not something the agency would put on a webpage, nor would it generally be available under a FOIA request (the classified information exception to FOIA wouldn't apply, but many intelligence agencies have additional statutory provisions that exempt much of their unclassified information from FOIA as well). Hayden, however, would already know this information, and there's nothing wrong with him using it (sharing something like a nonsecure phone number with the public would be a problem, but calling it isn't).

Now, for your specific question about whether Hayden might just not realize he's using his clearance: Disclosing classified information requires three basic things. First, everyone in the discussion (including the speaker) must be appropriately cleared. Second, everyone receiving the information must have a need to know that information. Third, the discussion must happen using secure channels. It's that last one that's critical here. "Secure channels" doesn't just mean "don't talk classified info on the subway." If you're talking face-to-face, you must be in a secure facility. If you're using phone, email, IM, etc., you must use a communications system approved for classified information up to the level you're discussing. Outside of extremely unusual circumstances, classified communications systems are exclusively accessible from secure facilities. Unescorted access to a secure facility requires a security clearance (that's one of the big things that makes it secure -- no uncleared people around).

What this means is that if Hayden is having a discussion with senior CIA officials over unsecure channels, the discussion has to be at the unclassified level. The fact that he has a clearance doesn't mean the discussion can dip into classified material. On the other hand, if he's having a discussion over secure channels, he knows he's using secure channels and that this requires a clearance.


The CIA has had people testify before Congress, issues press releases and are subject to FOIA request -- of course it could have come from non-classified sources.

The accuracy of the information may be questioned if it came from a non-classified source.

And you are overlooking an even more troubling issue if it wasn't non-classified: he would have been releasing classified information.

But what it really meant was: the official stance of the CIA has not changed on this issue. That doesn't require a security clearance.

  • I am not overlooking the fact that he would have been releasing classified information. I am assuming that he was not. I tried to explain this in a few previous comments, but I don't know how effective it was. So I made an addition to the question to explain what this is all about.
    – grovkin
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 22:42

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