Above Top Secret: Security Clearances Explained

1.0. The Intricacies of Security Clearances

Security clearances are a critical part of the US and UK government frameworks. They play a pivotal role in maintaining national security and ensuring the right people have access to sensitive information. This article delves into the complexities of security clearances, including the elusive ‘Above Top Secret’ level. Above top secret clearances are often mischaracterized and seem spooky, but this article will summarize these lesser-known security clearances.

2.0. Open-source Information and Its Role

Governments handle sensitive information in a hierarchical chain. At the lowest point of the chain, you have publicly available information (PAI), also known as “open-source information” (OSINF). Governments approve some OSINF for public consumption, such as open-source reports, but they screen this type of OSINF for sensitive content. Not all OSINF gets published with open-source access in mind. The term “grey information” is a common name for this type. The open-source intelligence (OSINT) community thrives off OSINF, and grey information is a valuable asset for open-source practitioners.

2.1. Types of Open-source Information

  • Publicly Available Information: This is information that anyone can access. It includes things like news reports, books, and websites.
  • Grey Information: This is information that isn’t officially classified, but isn’t widely available either. It might include internal reports or documents that have been leaked.

3.0. Understanding Classified Information

Classified information is when higher levels of security appear, starting with “Sensitive.” The US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology considers Sensitive information in which

“the loss, misuse, or unauthorized access to or modification of… could adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of federal programs.”

Sensitive information does not always require clearance. However, governments implement a high level of security with their storage. One example is documents with the “For Official Use Only” label (Source).

3.1. Levels of Classified Information

  1. Confidential/Restricted: Information that, if leaked, could threaten national security.
  2. Secret: Information that, if leaked, could cause serious damage to national security.
  3. Top Secret: Information that, if leaked, could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security (Source).

4.0. The Vetting Process for Security Clearances

Governments award clearances to employees and contractors after a rigorous vetting process. The higher the clearance, the deeper the investigation. For instance, applicants go through a credit history audit. That isn’t simply to confirm they are financially sound. Instead, it is to search for an outstanding debt. A foreign agent could use debt as a counterintelligence tool. In return, they could drive a vulnerable individual to leak national security-related information for financial freedom (Source).

4.1. Steps in the Vetting Process

  • Application: The person fills out a detailed form about their background.
  • Background Check: The government checks the person’s criminal record, credit history, and other details.
  • Interview: The person may have to attend an interview to answer questions about their background and lifestyle.
  • Decision: The government decides whether to grant the clearance (Source).

5.0. Above Top Secret: A Closer Look

The term “above top secret” is often misunderstood and misused. In reality, above top secret clearances don’t exist in the way Hollywood portrays them to. Instead, it requires special access, which is granted through special access programs.

5.1. Types of Above Top Secret Access

  • Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI): This is information about important intelligence sources and methods. People need to go through a special process to get access to SCI.
  • Special Access Programs (SAPs): These are projects that are so sensitive that only a few people know about them. They might be about new technology or special operations.

There are different types of SAPs:

  • Acknowledged SAPs: These are programs that are recognized and their existence can be openly discussed.
  • Unacknowledged SAPs: These programs are not publicly recognized and their existence is usually denied.
  • Waived SAPs: These are a subset of unacknowledged SAPs, so sensitive that they require special access and are exempt from standard reporting requirements to Congress.

5.2. Examples of Special Access Programs

  • Special Access Programs (SAPs): These have a layer of intense security around them. SAPs commonly exist in the intelligence community and involve research and development (DARPA).
  • Black projects/budget: These exist in the intelligence community and military. Examples of black projects are stealth aircraft, advanced weapons systems, and highly sensitive special operations. The black budget is the name for the government funding that goes towards these projects.
  • Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI): Governments award SCI clearances to individuals who hold an inadequate clearance for a program that they are part of.
  • Q Clearance: These types of clearance are for individuals who work at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Specifically, DOE employees who work with highly sensitive energy information or technology. This includes access to nuclear weapon schematics or nuclear missiles. An individual possessing a Q Clearance has gone through an intense background investigation.
  • Cosmic/ATOMAL Top Secret: NATO has its own security classifications. From those, COSMIC TOP SECRET and ATOMAL are the highest rankings. Information at this level, if leaked, could have grave ramifications for NATO adjacent forces. ATOMAL shares similarities with Q Clearances. In that regard, ATOMAL holders work with sensitive space and energy-related information.
  • YANKEE WHITE: This clearance is unique to the U.S. Anyone working near the President must possess one, including administrative and logistical staff.

6.0. The Impact of Leaks

Leaks of classified information can have serious consequences. They can put national security at risk and harm the country’s relationships with other nations. They can also put individuals in danger, especially if they are involved in covert operations. Governments take leaks very seriously and have strict penalties for anyone found to be responsible (Source).

6.1. Notable Cases of Security Breaches

  • Edward Snowden: In 2013, Snowden, a former contractor for the CIA, leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). His leaks revealed numerous global surveillance programs.
  • Chelsea Manning: A former US Army intelligence analyst, Manning leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, including videos of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables.
  • Jack Teixeira: In 2023, Teixeira, a former intelligence analyst, leaked classified documents related to special access programs, causing a significant breach in national security (Source).

7.0. The UK’s Approach to Security Clearances

The UK’s approach to security clearances is similar to that of the US, but with some key differences. The UK has several levels of security clearances, each with its own requirements and checks. Here are some of the main ones:

  • Baseline Personnel Security Standard (BPSS): This is the recognized standard for the pre-employment screening of individuals with access to government assets. It’s not a formal security clearance, but its rigorous and consistent application underpins the national security vetting process at CTC, Level 1B, SC, and DV.
  • Counter Terrorist Check (CTC)/Level 1B: This clearance is required for individuals who are to be employed in posts that involve proximity to public figures assessed to be at particular risk from terrorist attack, give access to information or material assessed to be of value to terrorists, or involve unescorted access to certain military, civil, industrial, or commercial establishments assessed to be at particular risk from terrorist attack.
  • Security Check (SC): This clearance is required for individuals who are to be employed in posts that require them to have long-term, frequent, and uncontrolled access to SECRET assets and/or occasional, supervised access to TOP SECRET assets.
  • Developed Vetting (DV): This is the highest level of security clearance in the UK. It is required for individuals to be employed in posts that need frequent and uncontrolled access to TOP SECRET assets or access to TOP SECRET codeword material.

Each of these clearances involves a range of checks, including identity verification, criminal record checks, and checks of Security Service (MI5) records. For the higher levels of clearance, there may also be a detailed interview and a full review of personal finances (Source).

8.0.The Future of Security Clearances

The world of security clearances is always evolving. New technologies and threats mean that the system has to adapt. For example, cyber security is now a major concern. This means that the vetting process now includes checks on a person’s online activity. The aim is always to keep one step ahead of those who would like to get their hands on classified information (Source).

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