Here’s How the Government Classifies Its Most Sensitive Information

The F.B.I.’s search at former President Donald J. Trump’s Florida home was driven in part by the government’s effort to ensure the security of the nation’s most highly sensitive information, including, according to a person briefed on the matter, material designated “Special Access Programs” — a category that limits some to a tiny group of top military and intelligence officials.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that federal agents had removed 11 sets of classified documents during the search, including some classified as top secret and designated to be available only in secure government facilities.

Historically, special access programs have been reserved for extremely sensitive operations carried out by the United States, or for closely held technologies and capabilities. That could include covert programs against adversaries, or the development of special surveillance and weapons technologies, such as new kinds of stealth aircraft and hypersonic missiles.

But SAPs — as the programs are often called — do not indicate a higher level of classification. Instead, they are intended to limit the number of people who have access to secret or top secret materials. They are created when the sharing of specific information represents a heightened threat of damaging disclosures, or when a “secret” or “top secret” classification is not deemed sufficiently protective.

Only a few top cabinet officials, including the secretaries of state and defense, or the director of national intelligence can create a SAP; and information placed within a SAP is available to only a handful of high-level officials, including the president and his top national security officials. As with all highly sensitive intelligence, material designated as SAP is very closely tracked to monitor who has handled the information.

The documents themselves most likely would not indicate that they were part of a special access program; more likely they would be marked “secret” or “top secret.”

The Washington Post reported that among the materials the F.B.I. was seeking in the search were documents relating to nuclear weapons.

In January of this year, Mr. Trump turned over to the National Archives 15 boxes of material he had improperly taken with him when he left office. The archives subsequently identified classified material in the boxes and referred the matter to the Justice Department, which later convened a grand jury.

It is still unclear what kind of documents the government thinks Mr. Trump might still have in his possession, or why. He often called such documents “my intelligence” or “mine,” and he often reviewed such information during his trips to Mar-a-Lago while he was president.

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