The three levels of classified information for documents

(NewsNation) — A heavily redacted affidavit used to obtain the search warrant for former President Donald Trump’s home revealed more information about the initial set of classified documents that led federal authorities to open an investigation earlier this year.

According to the 32-page affidavit, when FBI agents reviewed the material turned over to the National Archives in January 2022 they found documents with classification markings in 14 of the 15 boxes recovered from Mar-a-Lago. Specifically, federal authorities found:

  • 184 unique documents with classification markings
    • 67 documents were marked as “confidential”
    • 92 documents were marked as “secret”
    • 25 documents were marked as “top secret”

During the search of Mar-a-Lago earlier this month, the FBI retrieved 11 additional sets of classified documents, including information marked at the top secret level.

The U.S. government uses three levels of classification to designate how sensitive government information is: confidential, secret and top secret.

So what do the different levels actually mean?

top secret

This refers to national security information that requires the highest level of protection — a designation that should be used “with the utmost restraint,” according to the Code of Federal Regulations.

In order to receive a top secret classification, there has to be a reasonable expectation that, if leaked, the information would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the code reads.

Examples of “exceptionally grave damage” listed in the code include:

  • Armed hostilities against the United States or its allies
  • Disruption of foreign relations vitally affecting national security
  • The compromise of vital national defense plans
  • The revelation of sensitive intelligence operations
  • The disclosure of scientific developments vital to national security

The second highest classification, a secret designation is applied to information that requires “a substantial degree of protection” and should be used “sparingly,” the code reads.

Information that could be reasonably expected to cause “serious damage” to national security is classified as secret.

Examples of “serious damage” outlined in the rules include:

  • Disruption of foreign relations significantly affecting the national security
  • Significant impairment of a program or policy directly related to the national security
  • Revelation of significant military plans or intelligence operations
  • Compromise of significant scientific or technological developments relating to national security

Information is classified as confidential when its unauthorized release could be reasonably expected to cause “damage to national security.” This information requires protection but not to the same level as secret and top secret information.


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