News & Politics

How Were Inquiry Transcripts Classified?

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

During the open hearings in the Impeachment Inquisition, Representative John Ratcliffe asked — several times — for the release of the closed-interview transcripts with Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. His request was refused: Representative Adam Schiff, the current chair of the House Special Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) had classified the transcript SECRET.

This made me curious: how were they classified?

Under U.S. law, classification is normally under the authority of the president. The mechanism that establishes classification is normally drawn from Executive Order 13526. I’ve written a lot about classification in the past, so I won’t reprise it here — read my old articles about the hack of the government personnel system, about the Snowden espionage, and about Hillary Clinton’s multiple problems with classified data — but the gist of the process is that the original authority for classification comes from the president under his Article II powers. Under the EO, the president then delegates power to original classification authorities who are responsible for ensuring that they and their staffs are classifying material correctly, and treating it properly.

For example, the material in Hillary Clinton’s emails originated in the Department of State; the secretary of State is the original classification authority as delegated this power by the president, and is personally responsible for ensuring the right processes are followed. And yeah, I’m beating this moribund equine a bit, but I’m still cranky that Hillary got away with it, or has gotten away with it so far.

In any case, this discussion of Schiff classifying this transcript SECRET to prevent it from being released struck me odd. Is the classification under EO 13526? If so, the president can declassify it with a one-line letter.

I can think of lots of reasons why Trump wouldn’t do it, such as the high-level moaning and screaming becoming a sideshow. But I was still curious, so I emailed Radcliffe’s office.

It appears that I’m not the only one asking. Radcliffe’s office gave me this statement: “Minority members were advised by the House Permanent Select Committee’s majority staff that the ICIG’s testimony had been marked secret. No other details were provided.”

Adam Schiff’s office isn’t answering the phone today and they don’t provide an email address, so I’ve so far been unable to follow up on this. (I imagine that this has been a very hard day in that office.)

My curiosity is hardly reduced by this. If the transcripts are classified under the authority of EO 13526, then they can be declassified the same way. If not, then under what authority are they classified?