What to Know About Government Classified Documents and Secrets

The system can be applied to documents concerning intelligence activities, foreign relations, military plans and programs for the protection of nuclear materials, for example. By classifying information, the government restricts who can see the documents and where he or she can see them.

The Department of Justice recently removed some classified documents from the Mar-a-Lago residence of former President Donald Trump while executing a search warrant for possible violations of the Espionage and other crimes.

Here are the key things to know about how the classification system works.

There are three basic classification levels, based on the damage that could be caused to national security if the information were disclosed.

Top secret

This is the highest classification level. Information is classified as Top Secret if it “could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally serious harm to national security”, according to a 2009 study. Executive Decree which describes the classification system.
A subset of Top Secret documents known as SCI, or sensitive compartmentalized information, is reserved for certain information from intelligence sources. Access to an SCI document can be further restricted to a select group of people with specific security clearances.

Some of the materials recovered from Trump’s Florida home have been marked as Top Secret SCI.


Information is classified as secret if the information is deemed likely to cause “serious harm” to national security if revealed.


Confidential is the least sensitive classification level, applied to information that can reasonably be expected to cause “damage” to national security if disclosed.

What could be classified as a Top Secret document?

“The difference between Secret and Top Secret is quite significant,” said CNN counterterrorism analyst and former CIA analyst Philip Mudd.

Nuclear codes could be classified Top Secret, for example, as well as information from a particularly sensitive human source.

But there are even narrower classifications within the Top Secret designation. For example, intercepted communications may be classified as Top Secret SCI.

Another category of sensitive information in Top Secret or Secret documents is known as SAP or Special Access Program. Not everyone with a Top Secret security clearance is aware of the information contained in an SAP.

These higher-level designations further limit who can see the information and where it can be accessed.

How is the information classified?

Some people in government have the power to classify. For less sensitive classified documents, he or she can pass judgment on the impact the information could have on national security if disclosed.

But an SCI Top Secret classification would be automatic, Mudd said.

This may be because the information would reveal a source used by the United States or some method of obtaining intelligence information.

Who can see a Top Secret document and where?

Members of the government must receive security clearance to have access to certain classified documents. To receive a Top Secret clearance, one must usually pass an extensive background check that delves into financial history and may include interviews with friends and family.

Then there may be additional security protocols involved in posting Top Secret information. Certain documents must be viewed in what is called a SCIF, or a compartmented Sensitive Information Facility.

There are technical standards that must be met before a room or building can be designated as a SCIF, Mudd said. Multiple locks may be required, for example, and access to the room is restricted to people with specific security clearances.

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