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.