(Updated: February 16, 2014)
Top level telecommunications often involve information that has to be kept secret. To ensure that, governments have systems to protect sensitive information by classifying it, which is best known from document markings like "Top Secret".
Here we'll explain the classification system of the United States, which is far more complex than most people think, also because it's one of the world's biggest secrecy systems. In 2012 almost 5 million (!) people in the US had a clearance for access to classified information.*
The deeper parts of this classification system are classified, but some new details and codewords have been revealed in documents from the recent Snowden-leaks.
All documents that contain classified information, whether digital or hard copy, have to be marked with the appropriate markings. These are shown in the classification or banner line, which is shown at the top and bottom of every document and usually has three parts, separated by double slashes:
An example of such a classification line would be:
Additionally, all sections of a document should have a portion marking, which is an abbreviation of the full classification line. Below, the abbreviations for these portion markings are shown in brackets.
When a document contains joint or Foreign Government Information (FGI), the necessary markings are shown in a separate part of the classification line. Finally declassification instructions can be added. These markings will not be discussed here.
The meaning of abbreviations and codewords can be found in the separate listing of Abbreviations and Acronyms and the listing of Nicknames and Codewords.
The United States government classifies information according to the degree which the unauthorized disclosure would damage national security. Like many other countries, the US has three classifications levels. From the highest to the lowest level these are:
- TOP SECRET (TS, color code: orange)
- SECRET (S, color code: red)
- CONFIDENTIAL (C, color code: blue)
Government documents that do not have a classification can be marked as:
- UNCLASSIFIED (U, color code: green)
With 1.4 million people having a Top Secret clearance, it's more than clear that additional measures are needed to protect the more sensitive information. Therefore, that information is put in separated compartments, only accessible for those people who have the 'need-to-know'.
This system is called Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) for intelligence information, while other highly secret and sensitive information is protected by a Special Access Program (SAP). Both sub-systems will be explained below.
Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is a system to protect national intelligence information concerning sources and methods, and is divided into control systems and compartments, which are further subdivided in subcontrol systems and subcompartments. These systems and compartments are usually identified by a classified codeword, some of which were leaked or have been declassified. In total, there may be between 100 and 300 SCI compartments and subcompartments, grouped into about two dozen control systems.
- COMINT or Special Intelligence (SI)
- TALENT KEYHOLE (TK)
- HUMINT Control System (HCS)
- KLONDIKE (KDK, since 2011)
- RESERVE (RSV, since 2005)
- BYEMAN (BYE or B, defunct since 2005)
- Special Navy Control Program (SNCP)
- VERDANT (VER)
- PANGRAM (PM)
- MEDITATE (M)
- SPECTRE (?)
- CREDIBLE WOLF (CW)
- FOCAL POINT (FP)
- ? (GG)
- ? (CRU)
- AZURE BLUE (AB)
- STELLARWIND (STLW, since 2001)
- RAGTIME (RT, since 2001)
- ? (OC)
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SI
Multiple control systems are shown like: TOP SECRET//SI/TK
This control system is for communications intercepts or Signals Intelligence and contains various sub-control systems and compartments, which are identified by an abbreviation or a codeword. In a classification line they follow COMINT or SI, connected by a hyphen.
Known COMINT sub-control systems are:
- Very Restricted Knowledge (VRK)
- Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI)
- GAMMA (G)
- DELTA (D, now defunct)
- UMBRA (defunct)
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SI-ECI
Very Restricted Knowledge (VRK)
This sub-control system of SI was established in 1974 to limit access to uniquely sensitive COMINT activities and programs. It contains compartments or categories which have an identifier of one to three alpha numeric characters.
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SI-VRK 11A *
Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI)
This sub-control system of SI contains compartments, which are identified by a classified codeword. In the classification line there's a three-letter abbreviation of this codeword.
Recently disclosed codewords for ECI compartments are:
- AMBULANT (AMB), APERIODIC, AUNTIE, PAINTEDEAGLE, PAWLEYS, PENDLETON, PIEDMONT, PICARESQUE (PIQ) and PITCHFORD. There's also an undisclosed codeword which has the abbreviation RGT.
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SI-ECI PIQ
Multiple compartments are shown like: TOP SECRET//SI-ECI PIQ-ECI AMB
This sub-control system of SI is for highly sensitive communication intercepts and contains compartments, which are identified by a codeword or an identifier of four alphabetic characters.
Some former GAMMA compartments were:
- GABE, GANT, GILT, GOAT, GUPY, GYRO and GOUT
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SI-G GUPY
Multiple compartments are shown like: TOP SECRET//SI-G GUPY GYRO
TALENT KEYHOLE (TK)
This control system is for products of overhead collection systems, such as satellites and reconnaissance aircraft, and contains compartments, which are identified by a classified codeword.
The original TALENT compartment was created in the mid-1950s for the U-2. In 1960, it was broadened to cover all national aerial reconnaissance and the KEYHOLE compartment was created for satellite intelligence.
Some former TK subcompartments were:
- CHESS, RUFF and ZARF
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//TK-ZARF
This control system is for compartments protecting new sources and methods during the research, development, and acquisition process done by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Compartments within RESERVE have an identifier of three alpha numeric characters.* There are no actual examples.
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//RSV-XXX
This control system is for geospational intelligence (GEOINT) and contains compartments with identifiers of up to six alpha numeric characters.* There are no actual examples.
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//KDK-XXXXXX
This control system is for information derived from Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) and is identified by a codeword that is still classified. It's only known by the abbreviation.*
This control system is identified by a codeword that is still classified and is only known by the abbreviation which was accidentally revealed in 2009.* It's related to highly secret CIA programs.
A compartment of CRU seems to be:
- GREYSTONE (GST)
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//CRU-GST
This compartment is for information about the extraordinary rendition, interrogation and counter-terrorism programs, which the CIA established after the 9/11 attacks. It contains more than a dozen sub-compartments, which are identified by numeric characters.*
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//CRU-GST 001
Special Access Programs (SAPs) are created to control access, distribution, and protection of particularly sensitive information. Each SAP is identified by a nickname which consists of two unassociated, unclassified words. Additionally, a Special Access Program Central Office (SAPCO) can also assign a single classified codeword to the program. These can be changed regularly. The nickname and the codeword can be abbreviated into an unclassified two or three-letter Program Identifier (PID).
There are over 100 SAPs, with many having numerous compartments and sub-compartments. More than 50 SAPs protect operations and capabilities of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Many others are for military procurement, acquisition, and testing programs. The existance of a SAP can be acknowledged or unacknowledged.*
The classification line for SAP information shows the words SPECIAL ACCESS REQUIRED, often abbreviated as SAR, followed by the program's nickname or codeword. Examples of program nicknames are BUTTER POPCORN, MEDIAN BELL and SENIOR ICE.
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SAR-MEDIAN BELL
Multiple SAP's are shown like: TOP SECRET//SAR-MB/SAR-BP
Some examples of actual Special Access Programs are:
People who have been cleared for this SAP have unfettered access to presidential workspaces that might contain classified information at any level and may also carry a loaded weapon when the president is around. This clearance requires the most extensive background investigation.*
COPPER GREEN / MATCHBOX
This SAP protected a program for training interrogators to use techniques that had been reverse-engineered by the military's agency that trained special operations forces on how to resist torture.
This SAP is identified by a codeword that is still classified and is only known by its abbreviation. It protects all information related to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Groom Lake (aka Area 51).*
SAP compartments and sub-compartments
Special Access Programs can be divided into compartments, sub-compartments and programs. Compartments and sub-compartments can be identified by a two-word unclassified nickname or an alphanumeric designator. They are separated by spaces and they are listed in ascending alphabetic and numeric order. The classification markings do not show the hierarchy beyond the sub-compartment level.
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SAR-MB A691 D722
Dissemination markings or caveats are used to restrict the dissemination of information within only those people who have the appropriate clearance level and the need to know the information. Dissemination markings can also be used to control information which is unclassified. Some markings are used by multiple agencies, others are restricted to use by one agency.
Markings used by multiple agencies:
- FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY (FOUO)
- SENSITIVE INFORMATION (SINFO, defunct since 2002)
- LAW ENFORCEMENT SENSITIVE (LES)
Intelligence community markings:
- ORIGINATOR CONTROLLED (ORCON) (OC)
- CONTROLLED IMAGERY (IMCON) (IMC)
- SOURCES AND METHODS INFORMATION (SAMI, defunct since 2009)
- NO FOREIGN NATIONALS (NOFORN) (NF)
- PROPRIETARY INFORMATION (PROPIN) (PR)
- AUTHORIZED FOR RELEASE TO (REL TO) [country/coalition designator]
- Releasable by Information Disclosure Official (RELIDO)
- Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)
- DISPLAY ONLY
National Security Agency (NSA) markings:
- [country trigraph] EYES ONLY
NSA also used SIGINT Exchange Designators, which were gradually replaced by the 'REL TO [...]' marking. Some former SIGINT Exchange Designators were:
National Geospatial intelligence Agency (NGA) markings:
- LIMITED DISTRIBUTION (LIMDIS) (DS)
- RISK SENSITIVE (RSEN)
Department of Defense (DoD) markings:
- SPECIAL CATEGORY (SPECAT, defunct since 2010)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) markings:
- SPECIAL SECURITY INFORMATION (SSI)
State Department (DoS) markings:
- EXCLUSIVE DISTRIBUTION (EXDIS) (XD)
- NO DISTRIBUTION (NODIS) (ND)
- SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED (SBU)
- SBU NOFORN
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) markings:
- DEA SENSITIVE (DSEN)
Nuclear weapons related markings:
- RESTRICTED DATA (RD)
- FORMERLY RESTRICTED DATA (FRD)
- DOD UNCLASSIFIED CONTROLLED NUCLEAR INFORMATION (DCNI)
- DOE UNCLASSIFIED CONTROLLED NUCLEAR INFORMATION (UCNI)
- TRANSCLASSIFIED FOREIGN NUCLEAR INFORMATION (TFNI)
In a classification line this is shown like: SECRET//SI//ORCON
Multiple markings are shown like: SECRET//SI//ORCON/NOFORN
Nuclear weapons related markings
The markings Restricted Data (RD) and Former Restricted Data (FRD) are used by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy for information about design and operation of nuclear warheads. Both can have the following two additional sub-markings:
- CRITICAL NUCLEAR WEAPON DESIGN INFORMATION (CNWDI)
- SIGMA (SG, followed by a number between 1 and 20)
In a classification line this is shown like: SECRET//RD-CNWDI
Multiple SIGMA markings are shown like: SECRET//RD-SIGMA 2 4
Some intelligence agencies also use internal markings, indicating that information may not be released or shown to anyone outside that particular agency without proper permission. Internal markings are shown after the dissemination markings at the very end of a classification line.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) internal markings:*
- CIA INTERNAL USE ONLY
- Administrative Internal Use Only (AIUO)
- Deliberative Process Privileged Document
National Security Agency (NSA) internal markings:
These markings are used to identify a COI or CoI, which stands for Community Of Interest. Recently disclosed COI identifiers are:
In a classification line this is shown like: TOP SECRET//SI//NOFORN/BULLRUN
In order to prevent codewords being assigned twice, the Controlled Access Program Coordination Office (CAPCO) lists all codenames and authorized abbreviations of Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Special Access Programs (SAPs) in the Authorized Classification and Control Markings Register or CAPCO list.
Links and Sources
- Wikipedia articles:
- Classified information in the United States
- Sensitive Compartmented Information
- Special access program
- The 2013 DoD Special Access Program (SAP) Instruction (pdf)
- The 2010 Project BULLRUN Classification Guide
- The 2009 Intelligence Community Classification and Control Markings Implementation Manual (pdf)
- The 2008 DNI Authorized Classification and Control Markings Register (pdf)
- The 2004 listing of Country Code Trigraphs and Coalition Tetragraphs (pdf)
- Article about Security Clearances and Classifications
- Some notes about Sensitive Compartmented Information
- About The 5 secret code words that define our era
- Marc Ambinder & D.B. Grady, Deep State, Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, 2013, p. 164-167.
- William M. Arkin, Code Names, Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, adn Operations in the 9/11 World, Steerforth Press, 2005.