Throughout the day there has been a trickle of new information related to the FBI search warrant executed on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and the alleged 700 pages of classified documents that have been a part of the ongoing conversation around the former president, what he took with him when he left office, and the Presidential Records Act. The letter has caused further speculation about what might have been included within those 100 documents, but all of that is just that – speculative.
The letter indicated that at least some of the information removed from Mar-a-Lago was at the Special Access Program (SAP) level. The presence of SAP among the documents has led to several news agencies to project that the information discovered was among the ‘highest classification levels’ and while that’s sort of right, it’s worth noting that the key marker behind SAP isn’t exactly the sensitivity of the information but the stipulation that the information requires safeguards that “exceed those normally required for information at the same classification level.” And that category applies to a lot of information that gets classified at the White House.
Examples of White House SAP
A commonly thrown out White House SAP is the administrative nickname ‘Yankee white.’ Yankee white refers to the more in depth SSBI background investigation required for direct support to the White House. The Yankee white is the rare example of a SAP with a known-moniker. In the world of classification there are both acknowledged and unacknowledged SAP. But just because you find yourself working with a publicly acknowledged category of SAP doesn’t mean you should generally walk around advertising it.
The Department of Defense – like all things classification – is responsible for a great deal of the volume as it pertains to classified information. Within its own SAP it has categories for acquisition, intelligence and operations-related information. When it comes to SAP in the White House – well, it may be easier to describe what doesn’t fall under some SAP category than what does.
Why Are Presidential Documents So Special?
The questions coming out today largely center around why the president was holding on to boxes of (at least at some point) classified material. But ideally the question will also continue to shift to why those documents were classified in the first place. As the intelligence push becomes more open source, the reality is it’s often not our information that is most sensitive – it’s our analysis. Open source intelligence (OSINT) is allegedly responsible for 80% of our intelligence reporting today. More information may be sensitive than ever before, but does it need to be classified? Those are the questions many intelligence leaders are pushing on as workforce cultures shift and OSINT makes itself the ‘INT of first resort.’
Can the President Declassify the Documents?
U.S. code violations and Presidential Records Act issues are the major policies at play here. The classification piece draws the headlines, but the reality is if the (current) president wants to declassify something, court precedent thus far has born out his ability to do so. There may be some rumblings today to upend that current policy, but as executive order stands with classification born out of the president’s pen, we are left with a system where it’s plausible the former president did have a process where he thought documents could be declassified simply by moving their location – and where if he can support that was the process he set up in office, it may be hard to argue against it.
SAP information could be as basic as the president’s agenda or as sensitive as critical technology issues – the programs are as diverse as the world of secrets behind them. But the reality is, a classification marker rarely tells the full story behind the information behind it. When it comes to any documents that came out of Mar-a-Lago, the question isn’t just about the classification markers, but about the information – why the president thought it should be declassified, why he wanted to move it with him after he left office – and what the FBI thinks of it after they’re finished reviewing it.