Are there any state secrets the president would not be allowed to know if he asked?

I would assume that, for the most part, as chief executive there is no state secret to which the president is not privy (or rather nothing he won’t be told for secrecy reasons if he asks).

But I wonder if this is really true? For example, if the president asked for a list of all US spies, particularly the really highly placed and deeply embedded ones, would the CIA just hand that list over? Or could they complain that such a list is a need to know basis that the merest handful of people know in the interests of state security so they cannot give that information out.

What about if there are really aliens at Area-51? Or who really shot Kennedy? :wink:

I haven’t found any indication that Carter ever got a full briefing on these files.

There’s probably many, many classified programs that a President isn’t briefed on. Unless a valid reason arises to inform him.

It’s my understanding that regardless of security clearance, if something is ‘need to know’ you won’t know it unless you have an actual reason to need it.
I’d guess that something like current US spies is ‘need to know’. The president probably doesn’t need to know the names of all US spies and (in general, not just currently), the more people that know who they are, the more of a risk it is to state/country security.

ETA: From wiki, bolding mine…

And, again, nothing to do with Trump, it’s just a case of the fewer people that know, the better. Take your favorite president, the one that would never do anything to put our contry’s security at risk, if they don’t know these secrets, they can’t tell anyone, even by accident.

This is purely a WAG on my part but I strongly suspect that if the POTUS demanded to know what was going on in specific areas than need-to-know or not, he would be able to get the info. There might be exceptions regarding specific technical details of highly classified weapons programs (Just exactly how do we isolate engine noise on our new super stealthy submarine?) but the general overview of names, locations and goals of any program would almost certainly be available to the POTUS.

I see on the wiki page for “Security Clearance”, this line, “The President of the United States may be given access to any government or military information that they request if there is a proper “need to know”, even if they would not otherwise be able to normally obtain a security clearance were they not the President”.

While I don’t know if the author of that line did it on purpose or not, legally speaking, there’s a differance between “may” and “shall”.
“May” means that something can be done, but the person being asked can still decline. Shall (or must or will), means that if you meet the qualifications (in this case, being POTUS) it has to be done.
Again, I don’t know if it was written that way on purpose or not.

We’ve done this thread before, and basically the president is the top of the security chain and if he wants to know something then he gets to know. There is personal information (like tax returns) that don’t fall under that coverage, but otherwise there’s no mechanism to stop him/her.

Legally, classification is the responsibility of the executive branch, so yes, he can see anything because he’s the ultimate authority on what is classified and who has a security clearance. It’s kind of like the thing about god not being able to make a rock so heavy he can’t move it.

Practically, the government is full of people and one of the things people know how to do is obfuscate and obstruct, so who knows what he would actually get his hands on.

All classified material is need-to-know, true. But the President can also just declare that he does, in fact, have a need to know, and there’s nobody who can gainsay that declaration. In fact, he could just turn it around: “Mr. President, why do you need to know that?” “That’s a secret which you don’t need to know.”

The president is privy to any executive information they wish to have. However, not all state secrets are executive. We have co-equal branches of government. Courts seal information regularly. Legislatures could keep secrets as well.

The catch 22 is, you have to know what to ask for.

How can you ask about a secret project unless you already know it exists?

The current President and his key advisers should have received Intel briefings before meeting with N Korea. But, that’s still just a summary level briefing. It would require months of briefings to fill in all the details.

This is a perennial question, actually. See:

Is there anything the President can’t know? (from 2002)
What is the POTUS’ level of clearance in top secret matters? (from 2008)
Are there any government activities so secret that even the president doesn’t know about them? (May 2011)
Does the President still operate on Need To Know? (August 2011)
What if the president elect were ineligable for a security clearance? (2013)
Trump and a POTUS security clearance. (March 2016)
Could a US President be denied security clearance? (May 2016)

I see no reason to think the consensus of those threads has changed, regardless of who is in the White House: No member of the executive branch can, Constitutionally speaking, deny to the President of the United States any particular “state secret” (not even “a list of all US spies”) on grounds of “need to know”. Congress, by statute, has put some additional restrictions on things like the information in individual tax returns. However, under the Constitution the President of the United States is head of the executive branch of the federal government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces; no one within the executive branch (including the armed forces) can have constitutional authority to tell the President of the United States “I’m sorry, sir, you’re not cleared for that information”.

To quote myself from the dim, misty days of 2011:

But in terms of the law (including the supreme law of the land, the Constitution of the United States), the President of the United States has no “need to know” restrictions regarding “state secrets”.

nm. in above list.

In things like this, there is always an issue about possible compliance issues with those reporting the information. It’s reasonable to think that if someone is in charge of maintaining something very sensitive such that many other high-ranking officials don’t even know the details, that they would be hesitant to share the information with the President. There would likely be no way to actually force that person to reveal it either (torture might work, I guess…). If it was seriously that important to keep secret, he could very well think it important enough to be fired, ignore a subpoena and be jailed for contempt indefinitely for refusing to turnover the information. It very well may cause a constitutional crisis if the President were forceful enough, but if someone was trusted enough to safeguard information of such sensitivity, they probably have a lot more respect from the military or intelligence bureaucracy than an elected official, regardless of whether or not those involved had other reasons to believe the President to be an enemy agent.

snicker Makes me wonder if Trump demanded Obamas “real” birth certificate so je could blowhard out his ass about how he was right that Obama wasn’t born a citizen…and had a lottle trumpy hissy fit when he was goven the exact same certificate that was produced earlier. I really could see the chimp in chief stomping off pouting because he couldn t poke Obama.

Moderator Note

Keep the political jabs out of GQ.

FUNDING for anything secret must be appropriated by Congress and such legislation is either signed by the President or Congress can over-ride the veto … that’s a lot of need to know …

That’s not to say the law never disallows disclosure, my understanding is the CIA gives Congress a number, and they rubber stamp it … “We need $650m for our work in [del]Area 82[/del] MIT, for ‘stuff’, we’d rather not say what.” … but Congress is known to have closed door sessions where classified information is discussed …

The President is responsible, so he has a need to know …

As I understand previous threads, the modern legal basis of the classification system is the National Security Act of 1947. This gives the President the authority to create and maintain a classification system. If the Government has a secret so secret that not even the President can see it, then the President can simply redefine the classification system to not include any such level and then be able to see what he wants. That is, the authority to classify something rests with the President. Everyone else is his designee. Anyone getting in the way might find themselves without the power to classify or maintain the classification of anything.

Of course, there’s also nothing forcing the President to ask. Most of them have probably been satisfied with “I’m sure you guys are doing a good job, and I don’t need to know the details”.

I think considering the current President, many working there would refuse to tell him anything important. Rather lose your job than compromise the safety of the US simply because someone wants to show-off that he knows something special in public.

I’m glad you’re not the one carrying the football.