The FBI seized 11 sets of documents during the search of former President Donald Trump’s home in Florida last week, and among those documents were some labeled “top secret.”
Trump claimed the documents seized were declassified before they were taken from the White House stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate. While the president has the power to declassify nearly every classified document, there are some exceptions and a procedure for how the declassification must take place.
Here’s a look at how that procedure works.
What documents were found at Mar-a-Lago?
According to an inventory of documents unsealed on Friday, the documents found were identified as “Various classified/TS/SCI documents.”
There were four sets of documents marked “top secret,” three sets of documents marked “secret” and three sets of documents marked “confidential.”
What do those classifications mean?
Sensitive government documents are labeled in the following ways and are restricted to people who have clearance at a level that corresponds with the nature of the information:
TS: “Top secret” classification is the highest level of classified information. According to the Federation of American Scientists, its unauthorized release could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.
SCI: Sensitive compartmented information is a type of information collected from sensitive intelligence sources, methods, or analytical processes.
It is not a classification.
The information is considered more sensitive than top-secret information. SCI information is handled under controls established by the director of national intelligence. SCI information must be processed, stored and accessed in a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” or SCIF.
Examining SCI information in a SCIF is limited to government officials who have a security clearance that corresponds with the level of the information to be examined.
As the name suggests, information can be compartmentalized, meaning some of the material in a document can be classified in a different way than other material in the same document.
Secret: Secret material is information that would cause “serious damage” to national security if it were publicly available.
Confidential: Confidential material is information that would cause “damage” if publicly available.
Are there other classifications?
Yes, government documents can be classified as other types of sensitive documents in addition to the general classification levels.
Special Intelligence information has a specific category, as does information that is not to be shared with a foreign government — marked “No Foreign Dissemination.”
Government information about nuclear weapons often has its own additional marking to show it contains information about such weapons. That information is labeled CNWDI for Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information.
How does the president declassify information?
The president has the power to declassify most documents, but to declassify documents, a procedure must be followed. In other words, a president may not just say that something is declassified.
If the president wants to declassify information, a written memo must be produced, and the president must sign it. The agency that has some stake in the document is generally consulted about declassifying the information.
The president can take or decline any suggestion from the agency, and once the decision is made, the agency will be notified and the document itself will be stamped with “Declassified on (month, day and year of declassification).”
If the material was declassified, why did the government seize it?
The material was not marked with a declassification date, according to the government. Trump officials disagree.
According to former Trump defense official Kash Patel concerning material removed from Mar-a-Lago earlier in the year, the documents had been declassified.
“The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified,” Patel told Breitbart in May.
“I was there with President Trump when he said. ‘We are declassifying this information.’
“Trump declassified whole sets of materials in anticipation of leaving government that he thought the American public should have the right to read themselves,” Patel said.
Can a government official take classified materials home with them?
Though classified information can be taken off the premises in the course of official duties, a government official may not take classified documents home, according to an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama.
What happens next?
Trump contends that the information is declassified and has asked for the documents back.
According to The New York Times, none of the statutes that were used to acquire the search warrant depended on the information being classified or not.
The warrant concerned items “illegally possessed in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 793, 2071, or 1519.”
· Section 793 refers to national defense information that is illegally removed from “its proper place of custody.” The section of the U.S. Code is commonly known as the Espionage Act.
· Section 2017 is concerned with “anyone who conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so” any information “from its proper place of custody.” In other words, taking files that are not supposed to be taken from the place they are properly stored.
· Section 1519 prohibits destroying or concealing records to obstruct an investigation.
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