Keeping Up with the Policymakers: The Unclassified Tearline


Jul 28, 2016

Massive unclassified paper shred and uniform drop-off bins help prevent OPSEC violations

Massive unclassified paper shred and uniform drop-off bins help prevent OPSEC violations

Photo by U.S. Air Force

This commentary originally appeared on War on the Rocks on July 28, 2016.

Without wading into the politics of the imbroglio over former Secretary Hillary Clinton's emails, an important yet overlooked point is that U.S. policymakers rely heavily on unclassified email systems to conduct their daily business. According to an article by Steven Myers of The New York Times, a review of policymaker email practices revealed that officials throughout the Obama administration routinely exchanged sensitive information — whether genuinely classified or not remains hotly debated, regardless of the FBI's recent decision — over unclassified networks. The practice may not be exclusive to the Obama team, either. When confronted with allegations that some of his sensitive emails had been post-marked classified, President George W. Bush's Secretary of State Colin Powell exclaimed that “we might as well shut the department down” if ambassadors are not allowed to provide their private insights to the secretary over unclassified email.

Rightly or wrongly, routine use of unclassified email systems to share sensitive (but hopefully not classified) information is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how policymakers seek to leverage the tremendous insights they receive from their staffs and the U.S. intelligence community. In the particular case of the intelligence community, the reality is that while most policymakers greatly appreciate classified intelligence assessments, the utility of those assessments is limited unless intelligence agencies can keep up with policymakers' operational tempo and adapt their work to the policymaker's work environment. Thus, the intelligence community should consider remodeling its intelligence assessments to fit the new paradigm. Specifically, I argue here that whenever possible, the intelligence community should append unclassified assessments to its classified products — let's call this the “unclassified tearline....”

The remainder of this commentary is available on

Derek Grossman is a senior project associate at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.