The term “code word clearance” is sometimes used by the general public and is often described as an “above Top Secret Clearance”. While the term might be a part of the public’s security clearance slang, it is not part of the cleared community’s vocabulary. Those in the security community can best answer this question by explaining how the security clearance is granted, and that access to classified information is granted based on a level of classification. Classified information spans Collateral, Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), and Special Access Program (SAP) information.
Collateral Classified Information
With collateral clearances, the cleared employee is provided access to Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information, and is granted after undergoing a security clearance investigation and adjudication to determine suitability. For collateral classified information, those granted Top Secret clearances can access Confidential, Secret and Top Secret information. Those granted Secret clearances can access Confidential and Secret, while those granted Confidential can only access Confidential information. However, collateral clearances do not include access to SCI or SAP information.
SCI or SAP Classified Information = code word clearance
The “code word” clearance requires a higher level or more thorough investigation. That is because the “code word” clearance is used when an employee is briefed into a program requiring SCI or SAP. With the SCI or SAP designation, the classified document marked not only with the collateral designation, but also with the code word. For example, at the Secret level, a document might be marked “Secret (Code Word)”. For cleared defense contractors, permission to be briefed into a program with a required a code word is dictated in the DD254. This document tells security and the employee the level of clearance and any higher briefings required to perform the work, such as SCI and SAP.
Approval to access SCI and SAP information is provided after the Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). The SSBI is typically required for Top Secret security clearances and the same investigation is used for SCI compartmentalization. Normally a Secret clearance does not require an SSBI. However, if access to SCI or SAP is required, then the SSBI will be necessary to access Secret (Code Word) information.
A Fun Fact about code word clearances
To put a “code word” into perspective, let’s consider the History Channel’s, “Project Blue Book”. This show is based on a factual government classified program using the code word “Blue Book”. Those working on the program had the required clearance, were briefed to the program and were the only ones who knew the project details.