Inventory of 28 seized items provides insight into what was still kept at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida residence and private beach club, more than a year after the National Archives and Records Agency revealed began trying to retrieve poorly taken presidential records from the White House at the end of Trump’s presidency. It offers few details.
Here’s what you need to know about classified information to help you decode some of the items included in the inventory list.
What is classified information?
Classified information refers to documents and other documents that the government considers sensitive. Access is generally limited to people who have passed the appropriate background checks.
There are three main levels of classified information.
Confidential is defined as information that could “harm” national security if made public, is the lowest level, according to Steven Aftergood, security specialist at the Federation of American Scientists. The largest number of government employees and contractors – thousands upon thousands – have access to this information. That could include basic State Department cables and information provided by a foreign government, Aftergood said.
“Even if it’s not very sensitive secrets, it would be marked as confidential,” Aftergood said. “And you don’t want to publish it, because it would complicate diplomatic relations with that foreign government.”
Secret is the next level of classification, referring to material which, if published, could cause “serious harm” to national security. Aftergood said this is the broadest category. The budget of a US intelligence agency, for example, could be classified as “secret”.
The most sensitive information is classified as Top secret, meaning could cause “an exceptionally grave danger” to national security. And within “top secret” there are a number of sub-classifications often dealing with the most protected pieces of US information and intelligence. Top secret information could include weapon designs and war plans.
Sensitive Compartmented Information, a category that falls under the “top secret” classification, includes information from sources and intelligence. It could be an electronic interception or information provided by a human informant in a foreign country.
“The problem is that if this were disclosed, not only would national security be at risk, but the individual source or method could be as well,” Aftergood said.
What classified information would Trump have in his possession?
FBI agents recovered four sets of “top-secret” documents, three sets of “confidential” documents and three sets of “secret” documents from Mar-a-Lago, according to the list of items seized in the raid and unsealed by a judge on Friday. Another set of documents was labeled “Miscellaneous Classified TS/SCI Documents”, a reference to “top-secret” and “Sensitive Compartmented Information”.
But the list did not describe the documents beyond their classification levels. Since much of the information seized was classified, legal experts had previously warned that any inventory listing would be vague to protect the contents of the documents.
How is the information classified?
In theory, the president decides what information is classified and what is not. But in practice, the president delegates responsibility to chiefs of staff and agencies, who can then delegate responsibility to others who work for them.
“Throughout the executive branch, there are a few hundred officials who can generate it and designate it,” Aftergood said.
Who can access classified information?
Government employees and contractors must go through background checks to receive the necessary clearance to access classified information. The more sensitive the information, the more arduous the process of checking a person’s background to obtain clearance. There is some classified information that thousands of people can access. For other information, only a handful of people have the necessary permission levels to access it. The President would have access to all documents and intelligence information.
Some workers must sign non-disclosure agreements when they leave government to ensure they don’t discuss secret information they had access to while on the job, said Javed Ali, a senior National Security Council official. under the Trump administration who now teaches at the University of Michigan.
“You go through serious levels of background checks to get cleared, and not everyone goes through,” Ali said. “You want people you can trust with this sensitive information and who do the right thing.”
Can a president declassify information?
Yes, the president has the power to declassify information. Typically, there is a process for doing this, according to Ali. This includes communicating with the Cabinet or head of the agency from which the information originated to ensure that its declassification does not pose a national security risk.
Trump’s team said publicly that he declassified all documents found in Florida before leaving the White House. But it’s unclear if he went through a document-by-document declassification process, working with the relevant agency.
Can a president legally remove declassified information from the White House?
No, according to security experts. There are other laws that protect the country’s most sensitive secrets beyond classification. For example, according to Aftergood, certain information and documents related to nuclear weapons cannot be declassified by the president. Aftergood said this information is protected by a different law, the Atomic Energy Act.
Another law – called “collection, transmission or loss of defense information” – states that it is illegal to remove documents related to national security from their proper location if doing so could endanger the security of the country, regardless of or the level of classification of the information.
“Ranking is just one part of the picture,” Aftergood said. There are other protections in the law that can make unauthorized disclosure or retention problematic or even criminal.
Removing certain White House assets and documents would also violate the Presidential Records Act, which requires presidents to keep official records while in office. The law states that the records of a presidency are public property and do not belong to the president or the White House team. Violation of the Archives Act would be a civil and not a criminal offence.
Speaking of violations, what laws, according to the mandate, could have been violated?
The warrant lists the codes of three US laws that may have been violated. This does not mean, however, that they were all broken, or that they were the only laws that could have been violated during the FBI’s investigation. The laws relate to the destruction or removal of government documents and are subject to criminal penalties.
Section 793 — “Collect, transmit or lose defense information” – is known as the Espionage Act. It’s a broad law, and breaking it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has committed espionage. The law states that it is illegal to remove documents or records related to national security from their proper location if doing so could endanger the security of the country.
“It’s almost a misnomer, because when people hear ‘espionage,’ they think of the classic definition of espionage,” Ali said. “But here it has nothing to do with it, as far as we know. This may not be the cloak and dagger type of spying.
The second, article 1519 — “Destruction, Alteration, or Falsification of Documents in Federal Investigations and Bankruptcies” — criminalizes the destruction or concealment of documents to hinder an investigation. The mandate does not specify which investigation the withdrawal of these documents could impede. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
And the third, item 2071 — “Concealment, kidnapping or mutilation in general” — makes it illegal to deliberately steal or destroy any government document. Each violation of this law could result in a sentence of up to three years in prison. A person found guilty of violating this article is not authorized to hold federal office, according to law.
Government officials who have been accused in the past of mishandling classified information include David H. Petraeusdirector of the CIA under the Obama administration, and Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, national security adviser during the Clinton administration. Both eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for unlawfully removing secret documents.