September 5, 2022

[Above: CNN breaking news, August 31, shows the Top Secret documents at Mar A Lago. - eds]

The FBI Raid

The FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago and the discovery former President Trump had in his possession top secret government documents are not surprising. The Department of Justice previously recovered boxes of documents, some classified, months before. Many Trump supporters argued we should grant Trump a mulligan in the latest case. However, on August 30th, the Department of Justice released further legal information and a photo of the government documents found during the raid. The picture was the first time the public was given a glimpse into the potential seriousness of the papers in Trump's possession. The FBI redacted the document's contents, but the classified markings were left intact. We may never know the contents, but an understanding classification markings of these materials reveals the potential long-term damage to our national security.

Top Secret 101

The government classification system for documents is in place to control our nation's secrets. Levels of secrecy and specific systems for who within our government can view a particular document ensure this information does not fall into the wrong hands.

The anatomy of classified markings for a document consists of several parts. It is labeled with classification, control systems, whether part of a particular program, any foreign government markings, and how it can be disseminated. The control systems marking is typically one or more acronyms that dictate who can view the document. One must hold a "ticket" for that acronym to view it.

Trump Document Breakdown

The gray photos in the top left are labeled Confidential Limited Access. Confidential applies to documents that could damage national security if released. Limited access means just that: not everyone can view this. With no further markings, it is impossible to know anything about the contents.

Next to the confidential gray papers labeled as secret. Secret, meaning the unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to our national security. The NORFORN acronym "Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals" specifies the product's dissemination. One of these documents also bares the marking of ORCON or Originator Controlled. This designation dictates the entity that originated the document controls who has access to it.

The most important ones in this photo are labeled "Top Secret//SCI. Contains sensitive compartmented information up to HCS-P-SI/TK." "Top Secret" specifies its unauthorized release would cause grave damage to the united states. "SCI," or Sensitive Compartmented Information, is reserved for the nation's most important secrets. The first control marking is "HCS," designed to protect human intelligence or our spies. "P" stands for product. If it had an "O," that would mean the document held operations information, such as revealing the names of spies. The "O" designation would likely never leave the CIA building. Still, even the potential of an adversary using this information could put intelligence lives at risk.

The following control marking says "SI" is designed to protect signals intelligence, such as communications and electronics intelligence. The United States monitors adversaries' communications through various intelligence-gathering platforms. "TK" stands for talent keyhole, named after our first reconnaissance satellites in the 1960s. These assets protect our nation's overhead satellite surveillance and reconnaissance programs.

Document Handling

What is important to note is that the "SCI" designation requires that these documents be handled securely, such as stored and handled in a SCIF or sensitive compartmented information facility. The facility protects the document from theft and has physical and electronic countermeasures to prevent adversaries from eavesdropping on those conversations or, say, collecting that document through other technical means.


The most overlooked piece of information in this August 30th release was this subpoena. The subpoena demanded he returns any documents containing 28 different classification markings. Included were markings related to NATO, foreign nuclear information, and the United States nuclear information, covering atomic weapons and navy nuke propulsion.



Friday, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon unsealed records revealing that The FBI recovered over 11,000 government documents, including photos. However, the most alarming revelation was that forty-eight folders labeled "Classified" were empty. What is not clear is the whereabouts of these papers. Some have speculated the folders were empty when leaving The White House, but that, in and of itself, is difficult to believe.

The potential fallout

The potential damage to our national security by the possession, mishandling, and possible compromise of these intelligence documents, or products, is frightening. HCS information could compromise the lives of our spies and informants. The SCI products contain information regarding our human intelligence, signals intelligence, and imagery intelligence, or in other words, our spy satellites. These are our nation's crown jewels that protect our country from our adversaries. Yesterday's revelation that forty-eight classified folders were empty raises even more questions about Trump's end goal with these documents. The DOJ alleges that Trump and his staff moved additional classified documents to hide them, raising the possibility that Trump was planning to sell them to the highest bidder. Even if that proves not to be the case, the chance that adversaries now have the information Trump possessed should worry everyone.

Matthew Ford is the host of The Good Trouble Show and founder of the Political Action Committee Stand For Better.

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