Once again I’ve been hearing the once-familiar phrase “Special Access Program (SAP)” in the news, so that’s kind of a “blast from the past” for me. Even the guys who are actually reporting the applicable news item (instead of conveniently ignoring it) get things wrong, so let’s set a few things right and maybe get you a feel for just how bad this really is.
To start with there are only three sensitivity levels of classified information. I used to get a clearance for the first level, “Confidential”, my first day on the job by showing up with my birth certificate. It’s not especially Big Deal stuff, but it IS classified, and you can get in at least SOME trouble if you leave it laying around unattended, or that kind of thing. The second level, SECRET, is more serious, and you have fill out a bunch of paperwork and wait months to get your clearance to have access to that stuff, but it is pretty commonplace. The third level is, famously, TOP SECRET. That is not commonplace, and they get more elaborate in how they do the clearance, and there are more precautions as far as safekeeping.
Sometimes you hear about “beyond” TOP SECRET, and if that really exists, that classification is, itself, a secret. What I think they really mean by that is that there is an additional classification besides the above-described sensitivity that makes the information more “exclusive”, but not really “more highly classified”. You’re generally supposed to have what’s called “need to know” when access classified info – which means that while you have the clearance to see the stuff, you’re still not suppose to poke around in it just because you’re nosy – you’re supposed to actually NEED to see it for your job. Your clearance (at one of the three levels), plus need-to-know is enough to get you access, unless something “special” is going on.
In the “special” case, a formal list is kept of specific individuals who are allowed to see the information. Commonly (I think!) this list is the basically the same as the list of people on a particular program. The entire program is performed within a windowless room that’s physically a lot like a safe. The information is not allowed to even leave the room, and people who are not on the list are not only not allowed in the room, but they also not allowed to know anything about the program, including it’s name, what’s being worked on, and who is being done for, and this includes co-workers (including your boss) and family members. Nobody on the list is even allowed to be in the room by themselves. The procedures get especially interesting when travel is involved, or stuff has has to be sent to another facility, but let’s not “go there”. With the Defense Department, this is kind of program is called a “Special Access Program” (SAP); the rough equivalent with Intelligence agencies is called “SCI”, which we’re also hearing about. A separate security clearance, just for that program, has to be done for you to be put on the list.
The process of being put on the list is called “being read in” a term you may have heard if you’re an NCIS fan. The smallest of violations of these rules can result in harsh consequences, even if it’s by accident, and the day you come in the door they cite various laws with scary-sounding (because they ARE scary!) names that include the words “Espionage” and “National Security”.
To get to the news reporting, I can’t get overly excited when they carry on about an FBI investigator or Congressmen having to get their security clearance “upgraded” to even look at the evidence. Really, what that probably means is that they have not been “read into” the applicable SAP – a program that intentionally has a very limited number of people on the access list. But it sells news, I’m sure.
What I CAN get excited about, however, is when I hear that TOP SECRET information was not being stored securely, and that SAP information was sitting around someplace than inside a SAP area, where it’s supposed to be. It’s a HUGE no-no just to walk out of the room with SAP info, even if it’s by mistake, and you scurry on back in a panic after walking just a few feet down the hall with it – and that’s just for the SECRET level. It would take a downright willful and highly illegal act for SAP info to end up at someone’s home – it’s just impossible to do by mistake. It’s an UNIMAGINABLE no-no to have TOP SECRET info in an unsecured location. Here, we have BOTH!!
Then there’s the “Security 101” of marking classified information. The security people KNOW that people would LOVE to avoid some of the hassles and risks of handling classified info by simply not marking it as such, but that would obviously completely undermine the whole security system. Classified info MUST be clearly marked as such so that it will be obvious to anyone that that is what it is, so they will know to properly safeguard it. They drill into you time and time again that not marking classified info (1) does NOT make it unclassified and (2) is a security violation in of itself. Anybody who handles ANY level of classified information is told and re-told this over and over again.
People who handle classified info DO NOT refer to such documents as being “Marked classified” or not, because something is either “classified” or it isn’t. If it IS classified, it MUST BE MARKED as such, and so it is simply referred to as “CLASSIFIED”, not “marked classified”.
So when a certain top POTUS contender says that none of the applicable documents were “marked classified” she is making it pretty plain that both (1) there WAS classified information (which is a security violation), and that (2) that it was NOT MARKED (which is ALSO in violation of security laws). Otherwise she would simply be saying that there was “no classified information”, rather than saying that there was “no information marked classified”. So while she’s trying to make it sound – to people who don’t understand this stuff – like nothing improper was done, what she’s really doing is admitting to TWO serious security violations, not NONE. It’s Twilight Zone level stuff that anybody having this kind of stuff going on is running for ANY public office at all, much less the one she’s aiming at.