Need to Know: The Rarefied World of Government’s Best Kept Secrets


This classification system is now receiving new attention as the Justice Department investigates whether former President Donald Trump removed classified information from the White House and improperly stored it, including what some officials fear being detained in special access programs, possibly related to nuclear. weapons.

On Friday, the Ministry of Justice issued the search warrant that the FBI obtained for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, along with a partial description of the items seized. They included documents labeled secret, top secret and “TS/SCI,” which stands for top secret/sensitive compartmented information, a designation that is also intended to limit dissemination.

SAPs can be configured for all types of classified information. “They can be secret or top secret,” McMillan said. “They can be any flavor.”

Officially, an SAP is defined by decree as “a program established for a specific class of classified information which imposes safeguarding and access requirements which exceed those normally required for information at the same classification level”.

A former senior intelligence official described the SAP network as “its own ecosystem in the biodome of classified programs”.

The official, who agreed to speak on the sensitive topic on condition of anonymity, offered an analogy: If a building contained classified information, many officials would have access to the facility. But SAPs would be locked in a single room with only a handful of keys provided by staff – and only because they need the information to perform their specific tasks.

The SAPs, which at the Pentagon can only be approved by the Secretary or Under Secretary of Defense, cover a range of topics.

This may include intelligence, as well as the sources of the information, gathered from spies abroad, or details of technical means of gathering intelligence, such as satellites or eavesdropping devices. Many other SAPs protect data on specific weapons systems in the US arsenal or on the military capabilities of foreign adversaries.

“Sometimes it’s a vulnerability, something that has a limitation: it doesn’t do ‘x’,” explained a former senior intelligence official with access to a number of SAPs who also asked not to be identified. discussing internal procedures. “Sometimes it’s something really, really cool that we don’t want the opponent to develop a defense against.”

“You have access to it because you’re basically put on a list and the only people who can access that category of information are the people on that list,” the former official added.

Some special access programs also contain multiple layers that can each have different levels of classification.

Experts say the vast majority are “acquisition SAPs” involving highly technical information about weapons systems under development or with advanced capabilities.

McMillan said the Security Excellence Development Centerwhich trains Pentagon officials and contractors to handle classified information, estimates that up to 80% of Pentagon SAPs involve acquisition programs.

A recent example is the Air Force’s nuclear-armed B-21 stealth bomber, developed by Northrop Grumman. This is designated SAP due to technology sensitivity.

But it is a “recognized SAP”. Although the Air Force does not release details of the program itself, it is common knowledge that the project falls into a special category to protect it from prying eyes or ears.

Then there are also “unrecognized” SAPs, for which funding is deliberately hidden in the federal budget and their existence is denied to those who are not authorized.

The Security Excellence Development Center describes them as SAPs “whose existence and purpose are protected” and “program funding for unrecognized SAPs is often classified, unrecognized, or not directly linked to the program”.

Even the most senior officials who have access to the most sensitive information are not necessarily read on all SAPs.

“There are a small number of people who are so-called ‘super users’ who have access to any SAP,” said Eric Edelman, who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the administration. of George W. Bush and Ambassador to Turkey. and Finland. “I was technically a super user as an undersecretary, but was I read in every SAP? Surely not. I didn’t necessarily need to know a lot. If I needed to, I would be brought in what it was.

But the White House, he said, would have one of the widest accesses to this underworld of American secrets.

“In the White House, it all sort of ties together because you have oversight of all departments,” Edelman said.

And Trump was known to widely disrespect classification rules.

“If a general came up to him and told him something, ‘Mr. President, this is really, really important, it absolutely can’t happen to enemies’, he might have taken that with a grain of salt. “, recalls the former senior intelligence official, who briefed him on numerous occasions.

Trump has often sounded skeptical and opined that “those damn generals are so damn careful. They no longer know how to win a war. I know better,” the former senior official said.

Trump and his allies argue that everything seized from his Florida compound has been declassified under his authority as president.

Even if that were true, “that doesn’t mean he has the right to physically take it when he’s no longer president,” Edelman said.

If Trump is charged and convicted of removing the classified documents without proper authorization, he could face up to five years in prison under federal law – a sentence that was extended by a year in the past. Trump’s first year in office.


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