Above Top Secret: Security Clearances Explained


    Above top secret clearances are a misnomer. They seem spooky, but are often mis-characterized.

    This article will summarize lesser-known security clearances. However, before approaching what is “above top secret, ” it is helpful to provide a refresher on the levels of security commonly found in government.

    Open-source Information

    Governments handle sensitive information in a hierarchal chain. At the lowest point of the chain, you have publicly available information. Another name for this type is “open source information” (OSINF).

    In essence, governments approve some OSINF for public consumption, such as open-source reports. However, they screen this type of OSINF for sensitive content. Also, 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. Also, grey information is a valuable asset for open-source practitioners.

    Public databases like WikiLeaks exist with the purpose of leaking once classified material for public access. They provide a platform for famous government whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.   

    Classified information

    Classified information is when higher levels of security appear, starting with “Sensitive.”

    Furthermore, the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology considers Sensitive information that in which “the loss, misuse, or unauthorized access to or modification of… could adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of federal programs.” (source)   

    By and large, sensitive information does not always require a clearance. However, governments implement a high level of security with its storage. One example is documents with the “For Official Use Only” label. In simple terms, that means “this is unclassified, but it wouldn’t be ideal if you shared it outside the workplace”.

    Definition of classified information

    Classified information lives behind a tightly guarded paywall. The U.S. and the U.K. have the most well-known classification systems. These systems are the gold standard, and other nations use them as a model.

    Likewise, the U.S. and U.K. governments control the classification and declassification of information.

    The U.S. Department of Energy defines classified information as:

    “Certain information requiring protection against unauthorized disclosure in the interests of national defence and security or foreign relations of the United States pursuant to Federal statute or Executive order. The term includes Restricted Data, Formerly Restricted Data, and National Security Information.”

    Classified Levels before above top secret

    Levels of classified information include (source):

    • Confidential/Restricted: information that, if leaked, could threaten national security. In the U.K., restricted information has a “need to know” clause. This means someone with the proper clearance must handle it. (source) The bulk of information within this level involves personal details of individual people.
    • Secret: information that, if leaked, could cause serious damage to national security. Examples are military maps, trade secrets, and information about covert informants or sources.
    • Top Secret: information that, if leaked, could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. (source) Examples are military planning documents, maps of nuclear weapon storage sites, and diplomatic cables.

    Governments keep Secret and Top Secret information in special containers. In addition, Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF) are storage facilities designed for safe handling. (source)

    above top secret
    Example of a cover sheet for classified information in the US (wikicommons)

    Security Clearances before above top secret

    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 social engineering tool. In return, they could drive a vulnerable individual to leak national security related information for financial freedom.

    The standard clearances in the US are: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret (TS).

    above top secret
    Former President Barack Obama authorizing a military action in Libya while in a makeshift SCIF in Brazil (wikicommons)

    Above Top Secret

    Clearance levels above top secret are unclear. This is partially because of information security within most government agencies.

    Furthermore, the term “above top secret” is misleading. Media outlets commonly misuse the term in order to simplify complex topics of national security.

    In reality, above top secret clearances don’t exist. Or, at least, not in the way Hollywood portrays them to.

    “Above top secret” doesn’t require a special clearance. Instead, it requires special access.

    Special Access

    Special access programs are the crux of “above top secret.” Instead of a clearance, individuals earn permissions. In this case, they are “read in” to a program or operation.

    Examples of special access are:

    • Special Access Program (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. (source)
    • Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI): Governments award SCI clearances to individuals who hold an inadequate clearance for a program that they are part of. (source)
    • 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. Coincidentally, Q Clearances have entered the public sphere thanks to the Trump era QAnon conspiracy movement.
    • Cosmic/ATOMAL Top Secret: NATO has its own security classifications. From those, COSMIC TOP SECRET and ATOMAL are the highest ranking. 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.
    Michael Ellmer
    Michael Ellmer
    Michael is the Head of Research and Editor at Grey Dynamics. He spent eight years as a rifleman the United States Marine Corps infantry, with tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific region. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in strategic intelligence analysis at Brunel University London.

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