In the United States, derivative classification is a process that allows certain individuals to learn classified information originally produced by someone else. In many cases, the original author of the work did not intend for it to be made available to anyone outside of its intended audience. However, if an individual in a position requiring access to classified information stumbles across it or is told about it by another person who could have been exposed to it through their job duties, they may request permission from an appropriate level security manager to classify that information themselves and subsequently use and disclose it without fear of violating laws governing classified information handling. The classification derived from such a situation would then be marked with both the highest level of classification assigned in any portion as well as all portions deriving from the original author.
Uri Bar-Joseph, a professor at Haifa University’s Department of Political Science and former deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence says that derivative classification does not violate the rules for protecting classified information in any way. He claims that it is perfectly legal and ethical to handle such information in this fashion because ‘…the derivatively classified material did not exist prior to the classifier’s decision’. However, even though derivative classification does seem like a logical solution to an uncommon problem, it still has some serious downsides which limit its practicality in most situations. Here are three problems with using derivative classification:
If you decide to classify information derived from another source, you need good reason to believe that if that other source were to be exposed, critical damage or serious harm would result. This is a pretty high burden of proof and derivative classification occurs only about one thousand times a year.
Finally, you cannot use derivatively classified information as evidence in legal proceedings against the original author of the work nor can you use it as evidence against another individual who was exposed to that same information through their job but had nothing to do with its declassification.
The results of any derivative classifications done without properly understanding their limitations might not provide as much benefit as originally expected.
Derivative classification may seem like an attractive solution for those seeking to provide more people access to highly sensitive data but if not used carefully, it could weaken national security instead of strengthen it.