[This post has been UPDATED three times since first published, most recently on Nov 14, 2019]
Occasionally in the news (and more often in spy fiction) people pass around super-secret documents marked “Eyes Only.” The United Kingdom and Canada use “Eyes Only” to indicate specific countries with whom a document may be shared. “UK Eyes Only,” for example, means that the document is only distributed within the UK and not to other countries. The marking may also have a list of countries, often the “five eyes.” The US has traditionally used other markings like REL TO (release to) or NOFORN (no foreign dissemination) for this purpose. This type of marking is often called a caveat as opposed to being a classification level, compartment, or codeword.
Classified document markings are treated seriously, and government agencies have published explicit definitions of them. US classification guides (for example, this one from the intelligence community) discuss “Eyes Only” exclusively in terms to the UK definition. This does not, however, cover all examples. Another US definition I’ve found dates from 1974:
c. Eyes Only Messages.-A privacy communication from one named individual to another individual. Delivery of this type of message is restricted to the named addressee or to those personnel (contacts) the addressee has authorized to receive such messages. No further dissemination is permitted unless so directed by addressee or authorized member of his staff.Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Special Operations Branch Office Procedure No. 35-2, January 13, 1974 (quoted from a Senate hearing transcript later that year).
If we look at declassified US documents over the years, we find numerous non-UK uses of “Eyes Only.” These seem to fall under the old DIA definition. Here are some examples:
- April 1951 – regarding CIA Balkan infiltration
- June 1975 – regarding nuclear first-use and arms control
- February 1996 – regarding CIA Honduras working group
- July 2002 – regarding CIA detention and interrogation
Here are two important observations:
- All documents except one include a typical security classification like “Confidential” or “Top Secret.” This shows that “Eyes Only” is not generally used as a security classification.
- There are “below Top Secret” documents marked “Eyes Only.” Some commentators suggest that the marking is only used “above Top Secret.” They are wrong.
The 1975 arms control document is especially odd: it is marked “Eyes Only” and nothing else. The document appears to be a historical review used in the context of policy development. Security classification might not have been appropriate.
Does this caveat restrict copying?
I’ve seen discussions where “Eyes Only” was interpreted to mean “don’t make copies of this.” Keep in mind that the rules for handling classified information always discourage copying and reproduction. Such a caveat is redundant unless there are specific handling rules associated with it.
The DIA’s published procedure described no restrictions on copying “Eyes Only” messages. Moreover, the Senate hearing (noted above) featured testimony by an enlisted communications clerk who said that all White House messages were typed on multipart forms. The clerk often retained a copy of “Eyes Only” messages directed to the President or to Henry Kissinger and forwarded them to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He testified that he was ordered to do so.
The DIA had specific procedures for handling “Eyes Only” traffic. There was no evidence that the White House had such procedures. Without documented procedures, “Eyes Only” is an optimistic statement, not a security marking.
This posting began with a document excerpt showing “US/UK Eyes Only.” The excerpt comes from a classified document released by Edward Snowden. All such documents were downloaded from classified web sites. There’s no simple way to prevent copies of documents stored on web sites.
The State Department definition
I recently found another definition of “Eyes Only.” It appeared in a 1960 State Department “Daily Staff Summary” marked Top Secret Eyes Only. The second page includes two paragraphs of security warnings, the first of which actually defines “Eyes Only” as used here:
Thus, the State Department defines “Eyes Only” as “for the personal information and use of the designation recipient only.”
Attorney’s Eyes Only – from the legal profession
A final real-world example comes from the legal profession. Judges often issue secrecy orders when a legal dispute involves proprietary or otherwise sensitive information. Some secrecy orders require information be treated as “Attorneys’ Eyes Only.” Those cases allow the opposing side’s attorney to see proprietary information, but does not allow their client to see the information.
Less Authoritative Examples
I admit this research thread started because I was re-reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. Clancy’s writing has always posed a problem for me: I worked as a government contractor when his books started coming out in the 1980s. Red Storm Rising was full of “products” sold by one of my employers, and we had to distinguish between actual facts and Clancy’s fancies.
In Red October, Clancy introduces a CIA document marked “Eyes Only Delta” (“delta” printed unreliably as “Δ”) followed by a codeword. While his description of codeword handling sounds plausible, “Eyes Only” isn’t used that way by the US intelligence community.
Most people may recognize the phrase from the James Bond story and movie For Your Eyes Only. That usage is slightly better, since Bond is supposed to be a UK intelligence officer. However, the UK marking doesn’t refer to peoples’ eyes, it refers to eyes of specific nations.
A 2017 Washington Post article describes how President Obama received an “Eyes Only” document from the CIA describing Russian election interference. The document was hand-delivered by courier and addressed exclusively to the President and three senior aides. CIA director John Brennan considered the information so sensitive that it was omitted from the President’s Daily Brief (already a classified document). All discussions on the topic were restricted to the White House Situation Room to guard against leaks.
In the President Obama example, “Eyes Only” might have been an embellishment by one of the Washington Post reporters. It’s unlikely that a reporter glimpsed this highly sensitive document and saw the marking firsthand.
A final set of easily-found but unlikely “Eyes Only” examples are related to UFOs. They generally date from the 1950s and marked with “codewords” MAJIC or Majestic-12. The briefing for President-elect Eisenhower is a classic example. Another UFO research site rates this a hoax. In my opinion, the document doesn’t look or sound like a legitimate classified document.