Politics — which in this case is singular — is always a touchy subject, especially these days. (That’s an example of effective understatement right there).

But events that took place at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, especially the ones precipitated by the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of the place, have thrust a lot of words and terms, both new and old, smack dab into the middle of our voracious 24-hour news cycle.

What follows is my attempt to explain and define some of those words and terms as objectively as possible, beginning with the person and place before jumping into the other document-related things. First of all, recently released Department of Justice documents refer to Mr. Trump as “FPOTUS,” which, one can reasonably conclude, stands for “Former President of the United States.”

The place is, of course, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago (which is Spanish and Italian for “Sea to Lake”) estate, which was built by Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post between 1924 and 1927. It was made a National Historic Landmark in 1980 and was purchased by Donald Trump in 1985 for about $10 million.

The other words, as you probably guessed, relate to those documents the ex-president stored there, and, more specifically, all those official-sounding names and terms that the government applied to them.

In June, Trump’s attorney had turned over a double-taped Redweld envelope to the FBI that is said to have contained 38 documents. Redweld envelopes are expanding files that are often referred to as “red rope files” because of their reddish-brown color. They are known for their durable construction, which includes Tyvek gussets.


This brings us to the FBI’s most recent visit to Mar-a-Lago, which the government says was “a search” (the execution of a search warrant) of the premises, while the former president and his supporters assert it was a more sinister-sounding “raid” (which, in this case, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a sudden invasion by officers of the law.”) Tomato/tomahto?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) says  the documents removed from Mar-a-Lago belong to NARA (the National Archives and Records Administration) and contends that most or all of them are still classified.

Government documents, it turns out, can be classified in myriad and often confusing ways – at least to this layman. (When I was in the Army I had a “verified secret” security clearance, but I’m not sure why, since I didn’t know anything that the Soviets and East Germans could possibly use unless they wanted to help me maintain aging microwave radios.) Despite that, I’ll attempt to explain many of the current levels of classification and their meanings as I understand them.

Documents marked “Confidential” are those that contain information whose release could “damage” national security, while those marked “Secret” contain information that could “seriously damage” national security.

Documents that carry a “Top Secret” designation contain information that could “gravely damage” our nation’s security were it to get into the wrong hands. But things become even more hush hush when the information is marked “Top Secret” and carries the added “SCI” specifier, which stands for “Sensitive Compartmented Information.”

An “SCI” designation is often applied to a Top Secret document to ensure the confidentiality of  “HCS,” or “Human-Source Intelligence Control Systems,” and is designed to protect information derived from clandestine human intelligence including “activities, capabilities, techniques, processes, and procedures.” All documents that carry the “SCI” marking must be viewed by a person who has a NTK, or “need to know,” in a secure “SCIF”, or “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.”

Finally, there’s what’s known as a Q clearance, which is a U.S. Department of Energy clearance that’s required to access top secret restricted data, national security information, and formerly restricted data.

In 2017 a person claiming to possess a Q-level security clearance began posting his or her political theories on the internet using the name QAnon.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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