We celebrate Freedom of Information Day each year on March 16, which is the birthday of James Madison.
Before he became the fourth president of the United States, Madison played an important role in drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison believed these two documents should form the basis of a government meant to be open and honest with its people.
However, it would not be until 130 years after Madison’s death that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) would become law in 1966.
The FOIA gave Americans more access to government information. Instead of a need-to-know basis, the FOIA gave citizens access on a right-to-know basis.
The FOIA gives just about anyone, anywhere the right to request information from any government agency. While most government information must be made available to the public under the FOIA, there are exceptions.
The biggest exception is for records classified as secret in the interest of national security. While open access is important, the government must also protect the safety and security of citizens.
Information about national security is usually kept secret. Information the government keeps secret is called “classified information.”
Governments can keep some information more secret than other information by creating different categories with different levels of protection. How secret information is depends on how much damage it could cause if everyone knew about it.
Classification categories are different for each government. Most governments have categories similar to these:
- Unclassified: Unclassified information can usually be viewed by anyone.
- Restricted: Restricted information would cause “undesirable effects” if everyone knew about it.
- Confidential: Confidential information would cause “damage” to national security if everyone knew about it.
- Secret: Secret information would cause “grave damage” to national security if everyone knew about it.
- Top Secret: Top secret information has the most protection because it would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security if everyone knew about it.
Want to see what “top secret” information looks like? Check out page 13 of a United States National Security Agency (NSA) report on the USS Liberty incident.
USS Liberty was a ship attacked during the 1967 Six-Day War. The government released some of the information in the NSA’s report in July 2003.
The report’s classification — “top secret” code word UMBRA — is written at the top and bottom of the page. Classified information is often broken down by individual paragraphs. For example, you can see six different levels of classification on page 13.