I heard it said on cable news the other day, during a discussion of the latest developments in the Hillary Clinton email scandal, that trying to figure out how to explain the U.S. government’s classification system is like trying to explain how the Earth was created. In other words, it was too complicated for this particular journalist to adequately explain during the course of his two-minute segment on the Clinton private email server scandal.

Well, he is partially right. It is somewhat complicated, in that classifying information from a particular agency differs from how it might be classified at a separate agency. The classifying authority (he or she who sets the level of classification) might be a senior government employee at one organization (a GS-15, say), or they might be a more junior-level employee at another. For example, when this author started at the CIA, he was classifying intelligence reports as a lowly GS-11, albeit, under the supervision of a more seasoned GS-13 or GS-14, most of the time.

Really, though, it is not that complicated.

Start with the big picture. You have the U.S. government (USG). Within the constitutionally created three branches of government, there is the executive branch. It is run by the president of the United States and his cabinet. The executive branch includes a number of agencies, each of which carries out any number of various policies and legally mandated tasks. The Department of Energy, for example, has a certain role. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a separate role. The Department of Agriculture has yet another role. All three differ in their missions and tasks.

Of those three, probably only the Department of Energy has a need to classify any of its information above the “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) level, the lowest level of classification above UNCLASSIFIED. The Department of Energy, for example, was deeply involved in the recent Iran nuclear negotiations, and would thus have dealt with large volumes of sensitive information.

So far, so good. Next, there is of course the USG’s national security establishment, also under the executive branch, which includes the military, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, etc. In contrast to those agencies not focused on national security, these agencies classify almost all of their information, at some level, mostly above the FOUO threshold.

So, let us examine the term “information.” What are we talking about here? What does it mean to be “CIA information,” or “NSA-derived intelligence,” or “military reporting,” or “CIA-derived intelligence?” This gets to the root of classification. The aforementioned terms refer to the “owners” of the information that is being presented. In other words, “CIA reporting” refers to information collected by the CIA, either through its human sources or through other techniques. “NSA-derived information” refers to information collected by the NSA through its own particular methods.

This is important to note: this ownership, obvious as it may seem. The agencies that collect the information, or intelligence, also classify it. That is to say, if I were a Department of Defense human intelligence collection officer, gathering information from my human sources, then my own agency is going to classify any acquired intelligence appropriately, to be handled within channels designated for human collection.