Tim Barto: Top security classified clearances and other misnomers that mess with journalists’ minds



[The following contains very basic information regarding security clearances and classified information, all of which is open source material. Those of you who worked (or work) in the cleared world will find it rudimentary. That’s because it is intended for folks who have not been in that world but keep hearing about it on the news.]

Classified information has been in the news again, most recently regarding the discovery of classified documents in President Biden’s think tank closet and his garage. The story is, on so many angles, as fascinating as it is unbelievable. Well, it should be unbelievable that such things happen at the highest levels of government, but the past couple decades have taught us otherwise. A quick recap, shall we?

  • March 2005 – Sandy Berger, former National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton, pled guilty to removing classified documents from the National Archives and cutting them up.
  • July 2016 – then FBI Director James Comey announced that 113 emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal email account contained classified information.
  • August 2022 – a raid at former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence turned up 103 classified documents. A search in December 2022 revealed two more classified documents in a storage facility with which the former president was affiliated.
  • January 2023 – 10 classified documents were found at President Biden’s former office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and six more pages were then discovered in the garage of the president’s private home.

These instances are alarming, especially considering that no prison sentences have resulted. These people held positions of trust at the very highest levels of our government. Sandy Berger was the only one to ‘fess up, for which he was fined $50,000, spent two years on probation, performed 100 hours of community service, and had his security clearance suspended for three years.

The arrogance or ignorance, or perhaps a combination of the two, of those involved is particularly galling … but not quite as galling as listening to reporters botch the nomenclature of classified documents and security clearance levels.

Granted, most reporters haven’t worked in jobs where they accessed classified documents but somebody in their newsrooms had to have spent time in the military or worked for a government contractor. And to be fair, it doesn’t just happen in news circles. Movies and television do a pretty fair job of butchering the nomenclature.

So let’s set the basic groundwork, if for no reason other than allowing this writer to get it out of his system:

There are three levels of security clearances in the national security realm, in order from lowest to highest: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. 

Now, there are also Sensitive Compartmented Information accesses, and Department of Energy L and Q clearances, but going into that will just muddy the waters, so let’s save that for another time. For now, we will stick with Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

The three levels are defined by the nature of damage to national security that unauthorized disclosure could cause, and the definitions are quite basic.

The unauthorized disclosure of Confidential information could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security; for Secret information the  phrase is serious damage; and for Top Secret, the wording is exceptionally grave damage.

All of which brings to mind that courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men” when Tom Cruise’s character asks Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) if he felt Private Santiago’s life was in grave danger, to which Jessup replied, “Is there another kind?” (That was the best courtroom drama in American cinema.)

When you hear a reporter say the information was “top security” or “a confidential clearance at the highest level,” or if you hear a movie character announce that they have a “security clearance above top secret,” you will know better, and you can rightfully yell at the television set or movie screen.

Tim Barto is a retired personnel security investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence & Security Agency, and held the highest security clearance (but not above Top Secret) while serving with Naval Intelligence.


  1. The only person in the article who had any conceivable legal right to classified materials in his possession was former President Trump. All the others had absolutely no right to have classified material in their possession, including President Biden who was not President, nor a former President, when he stole classified documents. None of the people mentioned had their homes raided by the FBI except President Trump. Let that sink in.

  2. The vast majority of the “classified” information “leaked” to the media is never published and is actually disinformation or deceptive information seeded to the media or skirmishes in the current domestic political war, and all wars feature casualties. Secretary Clinton and Presidents Trump and Biden are such (political) casualties. They’re gathering, hiding, destroying, or otherwise possessing information critical to their maneuvers in this political war, and the agencies, courts, and media are the foot soldiers in this political war.
    Voters are tired, and the rabble are gathering their lanterns and pitchforks, because the next full moon is at hand……..

  3. Good information, well presented.
    Just as important as the security classification process, arguably more so, is America’s Deep State directly interfering America’s elections by exploiting (or witholding) allegations of security violations to discredit and depose sitting presidents who don’t meet the approval of Deep State officials.
    Motive? GOP Inc. seems desperately afraid of President Trump running again in 2024. Democrat Inc. seems similarly upset about President Biden running again in 2024.
    Why shouldn’t both Inc.’s collaborate, make something up to embroil Trump and Biden in perpetual legal and political scandals, one by comission, one by omission, coordinated and timed so neither scandal looks too manufactured?
    Why should Americans believe main-stream media and Democrat/Republican Party reports about Biden and classified documents any more (or less) than they believe main-stream media and Democrat/Republican Party reports about Trump and classified documents?
    Why should Americans trust reports from government officials about classified-document problems when Americans can’t trust government officials whose very jobs depend on how well they lie about everything, particularly national security issues?
    Seems reasonable to wonder what difference some classified document makes when the same government orders you to take an experimental shot that can kill you or irreparably damage your heart.
    Seems reasonable to wonder whether the Biden garage documents were justifiably classified to avoid potentially government-toppling consequences of leaking Biden family business dealings with corrupt, repressive regimes, and America’s avowed enemies.
    The concept of messing with a journalist’s mind is hilarious, proven useful if properly exploited.
    Current events repeatedly show the Democrat Party and mainstream media are conjoined, symbiotic, each existing only because of the other, so it seem reasonable to ask why any American with an IQ above room temperature should believe anything from either.

    • This is no more than a sleight of hand, move to get us to look in the wrong direction for what they’re doing to us in the back. Everyone needs to be watching your back because the government is trying to stab it every chance they get.
      Remember, don’t trust the government they’re here to help


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