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When the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last week, agents seized 11 sets of classified documents, including those marked “Top Secret,” according to court documents.
The actual contents of these documents are unknown, but they included some from each of the government’s security classification levels: confidential, secret and top secret. They also included a less familiar designation: TS/SCI, meaning top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information.
These classification levels refer to the documents and the level of security clearance a person needs to access them. Levels also increase based on the damage that unauthorized disclosure of information could cause, Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer, says NPR.
“If there is an unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, it can reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security of the United States,” Zaid said. “On a secret level, unauthorized disclosure is expected to cause serious harm. And for the top secret level, unauthorized disclosure should cause exceptionally serious harm.”
The unsealed property receipt with the search warrant shows that among the documents seized, four sets of documents were classified top secret, three other sets were classified secret, and three other sets have been classified as confidential.
The remaining set was classified as TS/SCI.
Top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information is not a separate level of classification
The acronym SCI is an additional specifier that can refer to a singular asset, program or project or how the information in the document was collected, Zaid said. Not everyone with top-secret clearance would be able to view a TS/SCI document – they would need clearance for the specific SCI designation.
“When you talk about, for example, issues related to the operational activities of secret agents, the identity of informants and assets … that’s when you start to be much more interested in the TS and SCI world” , Zaid said.
Anyone with top-secret clearance cannot view TS/SCI material
He often compares security levels to house keys. Those with confidential clearance have the lowest level of access, similar to a key that would open the front door. Those with secret clearance could go down to the basement with another key. Besides, only those with top-secret clearance would have another key to the laundry room. Once inside the laundry room, those who have the The TS/SCI designation would only have keys to certain safes or vaults corresponding to their specified project or asset.
Zaid said he represents many clients who mistakenly take classified documents home when they retire or in a similar situation, but retaining documents classified as TS/SCI is a much bigger matter.
People who work in the national security sector at all levels know not to keep TS/SCI-labeled documents, Zaid said. “To have so many classified documents that, at least according to the warrant receipt, [are] correctly marked raises so many red flags,” he said.