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Burn, pulverize or shred, but make sure it's destroyed

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The government's rules about secrecy sound like they came from the old TV show Get Smart.

The Defense Department posts signs that say, "Shhhh! . . . This area is not approved for program discussions. Watch what you say!"

When federal employees need to destroy a document, they can burn, shred or pulverize. In some cases, they can melt or mutilate.

Pulverizing, in which the classified material is crushed and the particles are forced through a screen, is said to be good for destroying plastic-coated papers. A Defense Department handbook says pulverizing can be done by "choppers, hoggers and hybridized disintegrators."

Secrecy is crucial for tens of thousands of employees in the military, CIA, FBI and other agencies. The government has three levels for sensitive materials that are based on the expected effect to national security if they are released:

Confidential, for material that could "damage" national security.

Secret, which could cause "serious damage."

Top Secret, which could cause "exceptionally grave damage."

There are additional restrictions on who can see a particular document. Someone with a Top Secret clearance is not necessarily allowed to see every Top Secret document.

The additional limits are spelled out by dozens of code words such as "Talent Keyhole," which refers to products of spy satellites.

Secrecy is crucial for espionage.

"In order to be good at intelligence, you also have to be good at protecting it," said Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., a member of the House intelligence committee.

For many years, the governmental has exaggerated the potential damage from releasing documents and has "overclassified" them, according to historians and members of Congress.

Federal law requires that documents be declassifIed 10 years after they are created, but the law has so many exceptions that the government has tremendous authority to keep documents from being released.

The government goes to extremes to assure classified documents don't fall into enemy hands.

Steven Aftergood, an official at the Federation of American Scientists, is suing the government to get a simple number: the total spent on intelligence in 1947-48. The government has refused to release the number, saying it could damage national security.

Today, signs and handbooks about handling and destroying documents are published by the Defense Security Service, a Defense Department agency that conducts background checks and advises military workers and government contractors how to handle secrets.

Defense employees are told to put cover sheets over classified documents on their desks. The rules even specify the color of those cover sheets -- blue for Confidential, red for Secret and orange for Top Secret.

Employees must keep the documents in approved file cabinets called Security Containers and keep a record of each time they open and close a drawer (on a form called SF 702, the "Security Container Check Sheet").

The huge volume of classified materials means thousands of documents must be destroyed every day. The government is very picky about this.

The Defense Security Service offers many tips in a handbook called Terminator VIII: How to Destroy Your Classified Materials. That publication, released in 1992, is being updated, but its rules have not changed significantly and other federal agencies use similar rules.

It says two types of defense workers are authorized to destroy classified documents -- those who have the materials plus a select group at each agency as known as "central destruction officials."

Confidential materials may be destroyed by one person acting alone. But for Top Secret materials, the shredding or burning (or pulverizing) must be witnessed by two authorized employees who must file a "Record of Destruction," or Form 3964.

An item is considered destroyed when it can no longer be reconstructed.

That's why the government recommends that lots of memos be shredded at the same time. That creates a larger clump of shredded pieces, which makes it more difficult to put the pieces together.

"A good rule of thumb is to shred and mix at least 20 sheets of paper," the handbook says.

Agencies even have standards on how tiny each shredded piece must be, specifying in some cases that each piece be smaller than 2/100ths of a square inch.

Burning also is a popular way to destroy, although the handbook says employees should stir the ashes to assure a "complete burn."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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