I had posted a "Breaking" diary on the new information but deleted when a spate of others beat me to it. In Kos' front page story, I posted some of the additional information on clearance levels and received a lot of requests to do a diary on just clearances.
So here you go.
This is the highest security level, and is defined as information which would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security if disclosed to the public. Despite public mystique, relatively little information is classified at "Top Secret" (when compared to the other levels of classification). Only that which is exceptionally sensitive (weapon design, presidential security information, nuclear-related projects, various intelligence information) is classified at the Top Secret level.
The second highest classification. Information is classified secret when its release would cause "serious damage" to national security. Most information that is "classified" is held at the secret sensitivity.
The lowest classification level. It is defined as information which would "damage" national security if disclosed.
(My emphasis added - see Wikipedia as a reference.)
There are different levels of additional clarification within the classifications themselves. One of these is the designation TS/SCI which, depending on which source you reference, means "Top Secret, Special Compartimentalized Intelligence" or "Top Secret, Special Compartmentalized Information". Compartmentalized information is exactly that - the government wants only the highest of trusted officials to have access to all the information pertinent to an issue, dossier, person or organization.
The means of obtaining a security clearance to gain access to classified information varies by the government agency where you seek clearance. It is not uncommon for intelligence-oriented government agencies and bureaus to have separate procedures, requirements, forms and investigative authorities to grant clearance to an individual. Further, each agency has a separate office with a designated classification authority (an individual or individuals) to determine which documents are to be classified, at what level the classification will be attached, and who can access the information. Generally speaking, the lowest level of confidential, secret and top secret clearances given to an individual require a background check that scales up in duration of years checked and completeness of information checked. I have heard of individuals receiving a secret clearance by having their financial, personal and criminal history checked for the preceding three years. I have also heard of individuals who apply for a TS/SCI clearance going through extensive background checks for the entirety of their adult life, having the backgrounds of their spouses, children, parents and known associates checked, and having to pass a lifestyle polygraph. It varies by clearance level and by government agency.
Executive Order 13292 provides the guidelines for classifying information. A few excerpts:
Sec. 1.1. Classification Standards. (a) Information may be originally classified under the terms of this order only if all of the following conditions are met:
(1) an original classification authority is classifying the information;
(2) the information is owned by, produced by or for, or is under the control of the United States Government;
(3) the information falls within one or more of the categories of information listed in section 1.4 of this order; and
(4) the original classification authority determines that the unauthorized disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism, and the original classification authority is able to identify or describe the damage.
Sec. 1.4. Classification Categories. Information shall not be considered for classification unless it concerns:
(a) military plans, weapons systems, or operations;
(b) foreign government information;
(c) intelligence activities (including special activities), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology;
(d) foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources;
(e) scientific, technological, or economic matters relating to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism;
(f) United States Government programs for safeguarding nuclear materials or facilities;
(g) vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, projects, plans, or protection services relating to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism; or
(h) weapons of mass destruction.
Sec. 1.6. Identification and Markings. (a) At the time of original classification, the following shall appear on the face of each classified document, or shall be applied to other classified media in an appropriate manner:
(1) one of the three classification levels defined in section 1.2 of this order;
(2) the identity, by name or personal identifier and position, of the original classification authority;
(3) the agency and office of origin, if not otherwise evident;
(4) declassification instructions, which shall indicate one of the following:
(A) the date or event for declassification, as prescribed in section 1.5(a) or section 1.5(c);
(B) the date that is 10 years from the date of original classification, as prescribed in section 1.5(b); or
(C) the date that is up to 25 years from the date of original classification, as prescribed in section 1.5 (b); and
(5) a concise reason for classification that, at a minimum, cites the applicable classification categories in section 1.4 of this order.
(My emphasis added)
Espionage, of course, has involved (among other things) the willful passage of classified information to persons not authorized to receive it. Aldrich Ames was charged with espionage when he sold classified information to the Russians. Sandy Berger came under criminal investigation just over a year ago for reportedly removing classified documents as he prepared for the 9/11 Commission Hearings.
It seems to me that all the signs are there that Karl Rove, if he handled the State Department's INR memo, would have known that Valerie Plame's identity was classified at a top secret level and he should be held accountable as others have been held accountable.