OpSec/classified regulations and people in the military telling family

Curious how hard the US military (and other world militaries in general) enforces the rules about OpSec and information being classified. Do they really enforce it hard - “You must not tell your wife anything about this submarine or stealth jet” or is it generally accepted within the military that a certain amount of sensitive data is bound to be shared between family/loved ones - “I was in Afghanistan, with such and such a unit, and we did this or that in this or that location” as long as it is not TOO specific on details?

To respond to this question, in any way other than to post this sentence, would be to break operational security.

OPSEC wouldn’t usually apply to a past experience; it’s to ensure operational security, so an ongoing state. Here’s a pretty good breakdown of it in practice.

What you’re really referring to is information that may only be available to people w/ a certain security clearance; and if they told their families things their families don’t have clearance to know, and word got to their Commanding Officer, there could be trouble for the service member.
We’re at war right now on several fronts so no, there’s no nod and wink, ‘It’s fine to tell secrets to your spouse.’

Ah OK, thanks!

You’re welcome! When I was a military spouse I had to know all this stuff if I wanted to have a social life, believe it or not.

Had a relative who used to fly the RC-130, a reconnaissance plane. Officially his assignment was flying through hurricanes to gather data. However, there were a number of times where he would say something like

“Got a call to fly a hurricane. I’ll be back in a week.”
“But there are no hurricanes right now.”
“I know. I’ll be back in a week.”

When my closest friend in Israel told me his son got a new job, he told me “it’s for the government.” When I asked again, I got the same reply, with his guess that it was “in one of the security agencies.”

It’s probably surprising to many how many people in Israel carry around some level of classified information. Hell, every reservist, which means almost everybody, knows his call-up phrase, which are sometimes inserted in innocuous broadcasts.

My father was in military contracting. He had a need to know clearance. I have no idea exactly what he worked on. It was never discussed.

All security clearance is “need to know”.

My aunt and uncle did some defense work as GE and later Martin Marietta employees. There was some stuff that once upon a time they wouldn’t talk about, although I suspect I’ve heard all the best stories by now (they’re years in the past). But I remember pretty vividly as a teen that they had a close friend (also a GE employee), who came to a lot of holidays, who flat refused to discuss her job in any way, not even in the most general terms. Luckily she was an outgoing person with a lot of interests so there weren’t a lot of awkward silences. But it is pretty weird for both employee and friends to have a job where everyone knows it’s top secret.

Years ago I read about a man who died of a heart attack at his top secret job (not dangerous at all) gov’t job; it was decades before his wife could be told exactly what happened.

I may have told this story before here; if so, bear with me. Anyway, when I and my wife at the time were driving around the South West, we ended up visiting her aunt in Henderson, NV. Her husband, in his words, was “a contractor who worked for Hughes,” and who left for work from the private terminal at McCarran. They said “he worked at work.” And that was it. For the longest time, her aunt thought he was a long-distance truck driver, as he’d be gone at work for anywhere from a few days to weeks. The family would often guess on shared vacations, where work was, what it involved, did the Russians know, etc… He didn’t say anything but was a good sport about it.

Their house had a few totems on his I-love-me-wall: a plaque denoting his membership in some army air defense unit, a few pictures of him next to various military aircraft. I said, trying to make conversation, that I was a plane and military buff, not to mentioned married to his niece by marriage, and did he have any stories he could tell? Nope.

O.K., he takes his oath seriously, w/e. Then we all eventually sat outside this non-descript block of suburbia and had a block party with all his neighbors in the bracing Vegas July evening. It couldn’t have been more than a 103.

All of them, or at least the menfolk, worked with this guy too. It was trippy, like something you’d read about in a Soviet closed military town.

IME, lots of people, if not the vast majority of them, take this stuff really seriously. If you’re not read into the program, you aren’t hearing about it. Family or not.

I’ve got a Japanese friend who cannot disclose who she works for. She’s pretty good at deflecting questions which is tricky because Japanese often define others by their employers.

Glomar response.

Don’t really know the answer, but I do know a navy friend that wouldn’t tell me a thing about his sub missions even though they happened ages ago. He didn’t seem afraid to tell me, more like he took his oaths seriously.

I can neither confirm nor deny that which I can neither confirm nor deny.

My wife and family knew that I couldn’t talk about my work, respected that and didn’t ask. As has been pointed about, all classified information, no matter how low the level, is still only given on an “need to know” basis. My family, none of whom had clearances in any event, never had a need to know. Case closed.

I once talked to a guy who worked for the “State Department.” Somehow we got on this topic, and he recalled when his daughter was 13, he asked her what she would think if he told her he was a spy.

Her response? “Oh, Dad. You’re too fat to be James Bond.”

I just finished reading Ben Rich’s history of his time at the Lockheed Skunkworks. (He was Kelly Johnson’s 2IC and took over from Kelly on Kelly’s retirement.) He relates that for years after he worked on the U2 he was unable to mention anything about the plane - its very existence was classified. Not until Garry Powers was shot down and the plane emerged into political prominence. At that time he was able to say to his wife “I worked on that plane.”

Something that is generally misunderstood about a clearance. It isn’t a privilege. It doesn’t bestow on you any right of access to anything. Indeed it is actually the converse. It comes with responsibilities. A clearance says that you have been assessed to be trustworthy enough. It provides the permission for other people working with classified information to provide you with information that you need to perform your duties. But it also requires that you are just as careful. You may only provide others with material they are cleared to access, and only that which they reasonably need to have access to to perform their duties. The cleaners may well have a clearance. They have no need to know anything. But they can be trusted to clean offices that contain classified information without risk.
If you find an envelope in a car park marked “Secret” full of documents that look interesting, you might be tempted to take them to the local newspaper. If you have a clearance, you are duty and legally bound to protect that information, and report a secure data spill to the appropriate security officer. Take it to a journalist and you are probably in line for some serious time at her majesty’s pleasure.

Information is usually really dull. But correlation of lots of mundane facts can lead to understanding of much more important things. Which is why sometimes even the most trivial stuff is classified. People with a clearance understand this. It isn’t just idle chatter about seeming trivialities that matters. Cross correlated with other idle chatter, and a much less mundane truth can be found.

In the story about Ben Rich - even if his wife had a clearance (perhaps if she worked for some other defence agency) - he still would not have been able to tell her about the U2. She had no need to know. And if she did, she wouldn’t be finding out about it from her husband.


When we first started out my ex-wife and I both had clearances. She was a defense contractor and I was a state dept contractor. We both had the same level of clearance but couldn’t discuss what we did at work with each other.

“How was work?”
“Can’t talk about it. You?”