(CNN) — The central question surrounding the FBI’s search for Mar-a-Lago last week is the one that remains unanswered: What documents did former President Donald Trump have and why is the government so determined to recover them?

There are other questions, of course. Did he take the material because he thought it was “cool”, as some kind of trophy? Or did he see any advantage in having it? the reporter from the New York Times Maggie Haberman during an appearance on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday.

Were the documents related to Trump’s pardon of Roger Stone somehow key evidence? What is behind the appearance of material about the “President of France” on receipt what did he take?

Imagination runs wild in the absence of facts.

Trump has now demanded that the documents be returned, even though the presidential documents, under US law, are not his property.

The most tantalizing detail is that 11 sets of documents were classified.

That sheds light on the classification system by which the government withholds information from its people in the name of everyone’s national security.

Over a million people have “Top Secret” clearance

In reality, it is a very large universe of people with access to data classified as Top Secret, those with the highest level of secrecy: ultra-secret information.

The Director of National Intelligence publishes what is described as an annual report, “Security Clearance Determinations”, although the most recent I could find is from 2017.

It describes that more than 2.8 million people have security clearance as of October 2017: more than 1.6 million have access to confidential or secret information and almost 1.2 million have access to top secret information.

There are additional people who have security clearance but do not currently have access to the information. This includes civilian employees, contractors, and members of the military.

The agencies control their own classified information. It is expected to be declassified

That doesn’t mean that more than 1 million people have access to whatever top-secret document there is at Mar-a-Lago. Each agency dealing with classification has its own system and is supposed to be involved in the declassification of its own documents.

Trump’s defenders have argued that he issued an order to declassify all the documents he took from the Oval Office to the residence during his time in the White House, although professionals have said that claim cannot be true.

“The idea that the president can declassify documents by simply moving them from one physical location to another is nonsense on many levels,” Shawn Turner, a CNN analyst and former director of communications for US National Intelligence, said during an appearance. Monday on “Inside Politics.”

What did the FBI take from Trump’s Florida residence? 1:07

There is an official process

Turner said the declassification process must include approval from the agency that classified the information in the first place to protect the intelligence-gathering process, its sources and methods.

Presidents have periodically used executive orders to update the official system by which classified information is declassified.

Most recently, then-President Barack Obama implemented Executive Order 13526 in 2009. That remains official policy as neither Trump nor President Joe Biden updated it.

The Government could soon change the process

Biden launched a review of how classified information is handled earlier this summer. Here is a comprehensive report from the Congressional Research Service about the declassification process.

Biden’s review will re-examine the three general ranking levels.

Classification levels

CNN’s Katie Lobosco wrote a very good introduction to the classified data last week. Here is his description of the three levels of classification:

Top-Secret– This is the highest level of classification. Information is classified as top secret if it “can reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally serious harm to national security,” according to a 2009 decree outlining the classification system.

A subset of top-secret documents known as SCI, or compartmentalized confidential information, is reserved for certain information derived from intelligence sources. Access to an ICS document can be further restricted to a smaller group of people with specific security clearances.

Some of the materials recovered from Trump’s Florida home were marked Top Secret SCI.

Secret — information is classified as Secret if the information is considered likely to cause “serious harm” to national security if disclosed.

Confidential — Confidential is the least sensitive classification level, which applies to information that is reasonably expected to cause “harm” to national security if disclosed.

What kinds of things are Top Secret?

Former CIA agent David Priess, who is now the editor of the Lawfare website, told “New Day” that no matter the specific classification, it is information that the government has an interest in not being made public.

It could be intelligence collected about North Korea’s nuclear program or Russian military operations, for example.

Why did Trump spend much of his presidency at Mar-a-Lago? 2:32

Leaks can be disastrous or deadly

The government often obtains this type of information by asking people to risk their lives or by using technology that it does not want adversaries to know about.

Speaking of which on Monday morning, Priess spoke emotionally.

“Exposing this information puts people’s lives at risk,” he said. “That’s not a joke. We know people who have died serving their country in this way.”

What took so long to go through the documents at Mar-a-Lago?

A more important question than what is classified, Priess argued, is why, if the government knew the documents were at Mar-a-Lago, did investigators take so long to go looking for them?

For a president to declassify anything, he argued, there still needs to be a paper record so everyone knows something was declassified.

“If they are not marked declassified and other documents with the same information are also not declassified, did it really happen? If there is no record of it, how do you know?”

We may not know more for a long time

The problem now may be that people speculate too much about what is in the documents.

It could be a long time before American voters have any idea what this is really all about.

“Technically, we won’t see any further action in this case on the legal docket unless and until the Justice Department files criminal charges against anyone,” CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elie Honig said, also on “New Day.”

There is already some speculation that rather than pressing charges, the government was simply trying to protect the data.

Classified information can stay that way for years and years, anywhere from 10 to 25, according to declassification guidelines signed by Obama.

The standard is that if something no longer needs to be classified, it must be declassified. And if it needs to be classified beyond that 25-year period, it can be.

The Top Secret Documents of Yesteryear

The FBI, CIA and State Department have online reading rooms for previously classified data released through the Freedom of Information Act. None of this is very recent material.

However, the case of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago documents seems special, and there are already bipartisan calls from Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the top elected officials on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting more information about what the FBI took.

What can change in the Trump investigation after the appearance of a key witness 1:17

Examples of prosecutions

Lawsuits for mishandling classified data can involve high-profile figures.

For example, retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus gave classified information to his lover, who was writing a book about him. He eventually pleaded guilty, paid a US$100,000 fine and received two years of probation.

What information did you mishandle? of the report CNN at the time: During his time as a commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus kept personal notes that included classified information in eight 5-by-8-inch black notebooks. Classified information (included) identity of undercover officers, war strategy, notes from diplomatic and national security meetings, and security code words.

Other figures are less familiar, like Asia Janay Lavarello, a civilian Department of Defense employee working at the US Embassy in Manila, who took classified documents to her hotel room and home while working on a project. of thesis. She They gave three months in prison.

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