US classified documents and security clearance: an explainer

Documents requiring high levels of clearance were found in former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home

The FBI headquarters in Washington. EPA
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An affidavit from the US Department of Justice released on Friday stated that former president Donald Trump may have illegally kept highly classified documents at his Palm Beach, Florida, home after his presidency ended in 2021.

A search warrant showed the department is investigating Mr Trump for potentially violating the Espionage Act, which prohibits gathering and disseminating sensitive government documents.

The investigation, carried out in co-operation with the National Archives and Records Administration and the FBI, is also examining whether he breached federal law by mishandling these documents.

What was found in the boxes at Mar-a-Lago?

The FBI affidavit, a document justifying the August search of Mr Trump's home, said the National Archives had retrieved 15 boxes from his team in May. Classified documents were found in 14 of them.

A total of 184 classified and top secret documents were found, with 67 were marked confidential, 92 marked secret and 25 marked top secret. Some documents included sensitive foreign intelligence as well as “human intelligence” sources.

The FBI warrant stated that agents had removed about 20 boxes from Mar-a-Lago. A total of 11 sets of classified documents were within the boxes.

What does 'various classified/TS/SCI' mean?

One box from the Mar-a-Lago search was labelled “various classified/TS/SCI” documents.

“SCI” stands for “sensitive compartmented information”, which covers materials that contain the most sensitive information. Those documents are closely protected and only viewable in approved facilities.

“TS” stands for “top secret” and it is the next step down from SCI.

If seen by the wrong people, SCI-labelled and top secret documents would cause irreparable damage to US national security.

“Secret” and “confidential” documents necessitate lower security clearances, meaning more people have access to them and they would do less damage to national security if revealed.

Who can view these documents?

Documents- labelled “top secret” require the highest level of security clearance.

SCI material can be top secret, but the documents are treated differently in how they are protected, housed and viewed.

Clearance to access specific SCI files are an add-on to top secret security clearance. Being approved to view a specific SCI document does not mean a person can view another SCI document elsewhere.

Federal employees or private contractors doing work for the US government can receive security clearance through a lengthy, formal background check.

US presidents, vice presidents and members of Congress do not have to undergo security screenings and are not required to have security clearance.

About four million people in the US have security clearances of some level.

Updated: August 26, 2022, 11:06 PM