Recent events with respect to the search warrant executed at the Mar-a-Lago home of Donald Trump have occasioned some journalists to get a tad much aflutter over classification of government documents. There are only three levels of classification: CONFIDENTIAL. SECRET. TOP SECRET. That's it readers. No super-duper stuff beyond TOP SECRET or over the rainbow. FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY is not a classification. EYES ONLY is not a classification. UNCLASSIFIED is not a classification. Nor is the publicity organization's stamp FOR RELEASE AT ZERO DARK THIRTY NEXT MONDAY.
That said, within any of the three classifications, one can find “compartmented” information that restricts access to only those who have been authorized or “read into” a particular program – often referred to as “special access programs” or SAPs. There are many of these programs, some very sensitive, throughout the government and the intelligence community. Nuclear related information may contain stamps that read “Restricted Data” or “Formerly Restricted Data.” Signals intelligence (SIGINT) or human intelligence (HUMINT) may carry codewords or identifiers that control their electronic distribution. Satellite imagery carries its own designators. Government workers and contractors who have access to these compartmented programs submit to more rigorous background checks and periodic lie detector tests.
War plans contain their own identifiers, but they are always within CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, or TOP SECRET. Other identifiers or groupings, but not classifications, are those such as NOFORN (Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals), CANUKUS (Canada, United Kingdom and United States) or SCI (Special Compartmented Intelligence). Note that SCI documents have separate, distinct cover sheets with a black and red barber pole-like border which stands out from other cover sheets.
Storage of classified documents varies according to their classification and sensitivity. Authorized metal safes are often sufficient for storage of material, even up to TOP SECRET. Special Access Programs may require further security such as a Secure Compartmented Intelligence Facility (SCIF). I have worked in, or been Security Officer for, a half dozen SCIFs in my 30 years of government service. I have even been in charge of the construction of a SCIF that covered an entire floor of a building in Crystal City, VA. There was even a SCIF within that SCIF that had about twenty 5-drawer safes within it. (It took an intelligence specialist about half an hour to open all the safes in the morning.) Steel support beams had to be welded to the floor to support the weight. That smaller SCIF within a SCIF held special access program (SAP) material filed within the safes. Some SCIFs have open storage so you can leave highly classified documents on your desk overnight. In other areas, documents must be cleared from desks and locked up at the end of each day.
There are also computers, networks and telephones that are made especially for storing, transmitting and discussing TOP SECRET information. These devices must also be located in a SCIF. At one point I had three computers on my desk (UNCLASSIFIED - linked to the internet, SECRET, AND TOP SECRET) and several phones at the appropriate levels that were heavily encrypted and secure. In many cases these computers have no slots for disks or USB keys so that copies cannot be downloaded to other devices.
To carry some highly classified documents out of a SCIF one needs an appropriate courier badge. I used one many times for carrying documents and photos to the offices of members of Congress. Within the Pentagon, I used the badge as authorization to carry SAP documents to visiting general officers, where I would be escorted into an office and left alone with the general while he read the message traffic. I did that once not knowing who wanted to see the information and found myself alone in the office with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf! Even his aide-de-camp had to leave the room as I presented some counter-terrorism SAP intelligence reports to the general.
The White House must be a nightmare with respect to distribution and security of classified documents, not to mention the security of the briefcase that holds the nuclear launch material, called “the football.” That briefcase (which has grown larger over the years) is within a few footsteps of the president at all times, usually carried by a lieutenant colonel. Jose Muratti, a fellow Army officer and my classmate from the Foreign Area Officer Course at Ft. Bragg was carrying the football when Reagan was shot. The Secret Service drove off without him as they sped to the hospital with the wounded president. Being a combat veteran, Jose found his own way to the emergency room. Another football is with the vice-president in the event the president is killed or incapacitated. Scenes from the January 6th attack on the Capitol show a uniformed officer with the football running behind the vice-president as he and his Secret Service detail fled for their lives down a staircase.
As far as I am concerned, based upon my decades of experience, it takes a good deal of forethought for someone to pick up, pack, and remove TOP SECRET and SAP material from an office. Removal is not done casually. It is not an “oops!” moment like a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Some documents require a signature on an accompanying list after an individual has read it. Some material is numbered and tracked - even its pages from one handler to another. I am sure that the investigators in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant case used some of these factors in determining who had which document and at what time. It is not nice to try to fool Uncle Sam. If you don't think so, read this.