Is There Classified Information Even the President Doesn't Know?

December 16th 2016

Mike Rothschild

The idea of classified information so explosive that even the president doesn't have access to it might fire the imagination (and Quora threads).

Obama looking at document

But, the reality is less salacious.

The occupier of the Oval Office has the authority to know virtually everything going on in the government, assuming they know what to ask for.

Signed by President Harry Truman to reorganize the military and intelligence arms of the government after World War II, the National Security Act of 1947 codified how classified information is gathered and disseminated.

President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order in 1982 clarifying that "the President, agency heads and officials designated by the President in the Federal Register, officials delegated this authority" have the power to classify and declassify documents.

While there are over 2,200 people with this designation, it can be revoked by the president through executive orders. This gives the president, in theory, the ability to declassify anything simply by revoking the authority of the classifier.

So there really is no classified information that the president can't get access to if they want.

Obama Nasa

However, there is a wealth of information that the president might not be told, for very good reasons.

It hinges on a concept known as "plausible deniablilty" — the ability of the president to truthfully deny knowledge of something the government is doing. The term emerged in the 1970s, after Senate hearings into the role of the CIA in foreign affairs revealed plots to assassinate foreign leaders, particularly Fidel Castro. The president was deliberately kept out of the loop on the particulars of these plans, with no paper trail connecting the White House to anything possibly illegal.

It took several more years for another committee to determine that the president was often involved in these covert actions, and the lack of a paper trail was intentional.

Fidel Castro

The names of foreign or domestic undercover intelligence agents aren't something the president might want to know, for a variety of reasons. For example, if a CIA asset infiltrats ISIS at a high level, even the president doesn't have a need to know the asset's real identity, and having it might put the president in an uncomfortable position.

The president might also want to be kept unaware of military or intelligence operations that could potentially violate U.S. law. While spending on covert CIA operations have required the issuing of a "presidential finding" since 1974, it's plausible that the agency might want to prepare these plans in secret, only going to the president as late as possible, so as to not have the operation canceled.

In general, the less a president knows about specific facets of an operation the better, so they can truthfully claim they had no knowledge if the operation goes wrong.

But in terms of the other deep secrets of the nation, they're all within the purview of the president, and the president can learn anything about them.