July 29th, 2010
03:04 PM ET

Security Brief: Who accesses military's sensitive info?

Editor's note: In light of the recent posting of military documents by the website Wikileaks, and the subsequent investigation into just who had access and who could have leaked them, the CNN Security Brief wanted to know a little more about who has access to what secrets.  We turned to James Curry, now a line producer at CNN International. Curry joined the Marine Corps at age 17 and served two years as an engineer, with one combat tour in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004, and three years as an embassy guard.  He holds a B.S. in political science from Troy State University.  He explains what's involved in getting top-secret clearance.

When we hear about someone having a top-secret security clearance, we think of that person having access to all of the nation’s secrets at the highest level. In reality, this is not the case. In order to gain access to classified material, one must have the appropriate level clearance and the “need to know.”

In fact, many people within the United States government hold top-secret security clearances and don’t have access to classified material. For example, most State Department diplomats hold security clearances at the top-secret level; this includes press officers and consular officials. However, most of the work these people do involves little to no classified information.

This leads to the questions: What is a security clearance? Who gets one? And how does the U.S. government go about granting them?

Security clearances can be granted on three levels: confidential, secret, and top secret.  A clearance is granted based on the level of classified material a person may deal with while doing his or her job. Security clearances at the confidential and secret levels are relatively easy to obtain. Usually a minimal background check of state and local records is all that's required. If nothing serious turns up, the clearance is granted. It’s a pretty straightforward process. A face-to-face interview is not conducted.

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Filed under: Military • Security Brief • WikiLeaks