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.
Comments by Readers
David A. SwansonAug 13, 2022
Like everthing else, Mr. Majestic touches, one must wonder if he planned to monetize the secret and top secret documents that “stuck to his shoe” on the way out the door.
Dick ConoboyAug 13, 2022
Have you checked Ebay?
Tim SurrattAug 13, 2022
Please read the Wikipedia article on Classified Information in the United States which indicates that the rules changed during the Obama administration and that there are controls within the TS category that further restrict access. While what you write is true, it is a bit simplistic.
David A. SwansonAug 13, 2022
Closest I could get on Ebay in the US were the FBI files on Mr. Majestic’s mentor, Roy Cohn
I’ll try the Russian and Saudi versions of Ebay.
Dick ConoboyAug 13, 2022
My intention was not to provide an explantion of classified documents worthy of the knowledge needed of an officially designated security officer. If one has never dealt with classified information, the rules can seem complicated so simplification at the level of this article is appropriate. For those who need an instant soporific, the basic Obama EO can be read here.
If you think I left out something of importance in my article or made an error in my explantion, let me know.
Tim SurrattAug 14, 2022
Thank you and I understand your intent. My experience when being considered for a job at Los Alamos was that not even a TS clearance allows you to work there. It is the government, therefore never simple. Still,yes, there are basically three classifications.
Michael RiordanAug 14, 2022
Here’s a few important questions you may be able to help with.
What procedures does a president have to follow in order to declassify a document or set of documents? Does he first have to get reviews and approvals from the various intelligence and other agencies (e.g., DoD or DoE) involved? What documentation, if any, must be produced to substantiate this declassification, and must it be done on a document-by-document basis? Or can he just wave his hand and declare that all the (unseen) classified documents in this box (or these boxes) are hereby declassified?
In view of recent news, I’m sure you can see where I’m headed on this. . .
Dick ConoboyAug 14, 2022
No hand waving allowed except to hail a taxi.
The procedures are outlined in BO’s EO 13526 which you can find here. Section 3 outlines what steps have to be taken. The president is the ultimate classification and declassification authority. This Atlantic article gives a good summary that may (or may not) answer your questions. “Not Even the President Can Declassify Nuclear Secrets” Overall it is ambiguous regarding the president (What isn’t?) But Trump was not president after noon on the 20th of Jan 2021. It’s not like the pope previously having selected a new cardinal in pectore.
Dick ConoboyAug 14, 2022
Yes, a clearance may be a requirement to work someplace, however, possesion of a clearance does not guarantee one will get a job. At times in the government I still had my TOP SECRET clearance but had no access to classified information. It was not a requirement for the job when I taught at West Point. French verb conjugasions are not secrets although one might think they are for students when correcting exams! “But Captain Conoboy, sir, how am I to know? The pluperfect subjuntive is in a special access program!”
Michael RiordanAug 15, 2022
Aw c’mon, Dick, please give your avid readers (myself included) the benefit of your 30 years experience working with classified materials and your writerly abilities. We want to hear what YOU think about these questions. I’ll try to read the Atlantic article but I’m not going to dig through an Executive Order larded with jargon and caveats. And I doubt your other NWC fans will, either.
Dick ConoboyAug 15, 2022
OK. Here is what I THINK which may or may not coincide with what the reality is. Politicians and the political hacks and wannabees who enter government for the first time (and maybe even the second time) have zero appreciation of the importance and significance of classified information or security procedures. Some highly classified stuff that crossed my desk in the National Military Intelligence Center I would read again in some form in the Washington Post a week later. Most congressmen have a bit more savvy in the matter but if they want to impress a date or a mistress, that TS stuff can be impressive to some young lady. Maybe the female congress members use classified info in a similar manner. I trust none of them. The article goes on to say:
“A president can make most documents classified or declassified simply by willing them so. This peculiar power is so great that the government has an office that exists solely to manage it: the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which has a strong claim to being the coolest government office you’ve never heard of.”
Well, cool or not. They sound like “the cleaners” or “problem solvers” brought in by mobsters to get rid of crime scene evidence and its consequences. I am sure they did a lot of cleaning up after Trump who was known to blab classified data with visitors including the Russians. Who knows what he did on other occasions. So this ISOO would have to go through the procedures in the EO so that the originating office of the compromised info knows that their info was compromised by the president or whatever moron of the day passed through the West Wing. A damage assessment would then be conducted because sources would be compromised and in the event of a human agent that individual would have to be warned to get out of Dodge (if he or she were still alive).
People who blab, including a president, can ruin in an instant 20 years of work by our intelligence agencies. They get people killed but that doesn’t seem to be a factor given the useless wars in which we have been engaged in the last few decades.
I could go on…