- The FBI retrieved several boxes of classified documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last month.
- Classified documents are sensitive materials that require legal protections to ensure national security.
- There are three levels of classification in the US: confidential, secret, and top secret.
Federal agents seized 11 sets of classified documents from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence after executing a search warrant on August 8, some of which were reportedly marked top secret.
An inventory list of the items retrieved, which was reportedly about 20 boxes in total, included a handwritten note; Trump’s order commuting the GOP strategist Roger Stone’s prison sentence; information about the “President of France;” and binders of photos.
Some of the documents marked top secret, according to The Wall Street Journal, were only ever meant to be housed in special government facilities given their highly sensitive nature.
Trump initially insisted that “it was all declassified” in a Truth Social statement. But this week, the former president’s legal team filed a new document on the matter, recycling claims of political bias in an effort to seek a court-appointed “special master” in the wake of the search. But the filing notably made no mention of Trump’s prior claim that he had broadly declassified the seized documents.
What are classified documents?
Classified documents are material that a government agency deems so sensitive it requires official protections to ensure national security. Classified information is legally restricted to people who carry the necessary security clearance to access it, and mishandling of such documents can lead to criminal charges for offenders.
Only people with the corresponding security clearance can view or handle classified documents, and government employees must undergo an extensive background investigation and interview process in order to secure the clearance.
There are three levels of classification in the US government, listed in ascending order of sensitivity:
- Top secret
The government assesses the degree to which disclosure of the information would harm national security and makes a determination of which level the documents should be marked.
Confidential information, the lowest level of the three, is defined as information that would “damage” national security if made public, according to Executive Order 13526, which in 2009, replaced earlier laws on the matter. Examples of confidential information could include intelligence related to military strength; training specifics; or information on munitions of war.
Secret information, meanwhile, is defined as information that could be expected to cause “serious damage” to national security, including intelligence that could disrupt foreign relations; specific military or intelligence operations; or scientific developments related to national security.
And top secret information, the most classified of all, is information that if released would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the country’s national security. This includes intelligence that could spark armed hostilities against the US; compromise national defense plans; or reveal sensitive intelligence operations. Some top secret information is specially stored in what’s known as a SCIF, where there is special security in place.
Can classified documents be declassified?
The Obama-era executive order on classified information also laid out the system for declassification. As time passes and information becomes less relevant or sensitive to a modern world, some documents may be declassified or partially declassified and become available to the public.
Under the updated law, agencies are required to declassify their information after 25 years unless they are covered by one of nine specific exemptions. Documents that remain classified after 25 years or more must be reviewed by any relevant agencies. Any documents older than 75 years have to obtain special permission to stay sealed.
Legal experts told The Atlantic that US presidents have near-total authority to classify and declassify most documents. However, there is a process for doing so, and it’s unclear if Trump followed that process, which would include showing on the documents when they were declassified.
It’s the defense that Trump initially mounted in responsive statements to the FBI raid. But even if the former president did “declassify” all the documents seized from his South Florida resort, experts told NBC News, that it might not matter when it comes to potential legal woes for him down the road.
For one, presidents cannot declassify nuclear secrets; that information is inherently top secret. And The Washington Post reported late Thursday that the FBI was specifically searching for classified documents containing nuclear information during the raid.