The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s classified Mar-a-Lago documents, catalogued

Pages from an FBI property list of items seized from former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and made public by the Department of Justice. (Jon Elswick/AP)
5 min

When FBI agents arrived at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort a month ago, they should not have found any documents marked classified.

This isn’t simply an observation about the behavior of former presidents and the extent to which Trump appears to have flouted rules governing the retention of documents. It is, instead, a legal observation: The federal government had subpoenaed any material with classification markings (regardless of whether that material was still classified) and a Trump attorney reportedly claimed that all such documents had been turned over. So when the FBI agents walked through the gates of Mar-a-Lago, they should have come away empty-handed.

They did not. Instead, they discovered about 100 documents bearing classification markings, along with scores of empty folders intended for classified material. And at least one of the documents they recovered, The Washington Post reported Tuesday, addressed a foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities.

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All of this is confusing to a layperson. So in the interest of clarifying what was sought and what was obtained, we’ve walked through the government’s documentation of the subpoena and the search to detail what the FBI was seeking — and what it found.

The May subpoena

Technically, the government should not even have needed to subpoena Trump in May. Four months before, it had received a number of boxes of material that should theoretically have included any presidential records owned by the government. But after investigating, the Justice Department issued a subpoena for material with a wide range of classification markings.

The contents of the box shown above are less complicated than they might appear.

First, it demands any documents “bearing classification markings” — again including any material that might have been declassified by Trump or any other government official. This is obviously important, as Trump and his allies (dubiously) insist he’d declassified everything: It doesn’t matter for the purposes of the subpoena.

Then there are the multiple classification codes. In short, they detail three levels of classification — confidential, secret and top secret — and then compartments or categories into which intelligence might fall. To use an admittedly odd analogy, it’s sort of like cars: “Top secret” is the make, like Toyota, and “NOFORN” the model, like Camry.

So what do all of those codes mean? Here you go.

  • FRD: Formerly Restricted Data (can include nuclear weapons-related information)
  • HCS: HUMINT Control System (intelligence from human sources)
  • HCS-P: HCS Product (disseminated intelligence)
  • HCS-O: HCS Operations (clandestine operations and methods not intended for dissemination outside of originating agency)
  • NATO: NATO-classified intelligence
  • NF: Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals (also NOFORN)
  • OC: Originator Controlled (source of information controls distribution, also ORCON)
  • SAP: Special Access Program (intelligence that requires even stricter access controls)
  • SI: Special Intelligence (intelligence from communications intercepts, formerly COMINT)
  • SI-G: SI GAMMA (subcompartment of SI)
  • TK: Talent Keyhole (intelligence from satellite observations)

It’s likely that FRD jumped out at you, given The Washington Post’s recent reporting. The descriptor of “formerly restricted” can be confusing, given that it implies that restrictions no longer apply. But as the Department of Energy explained in a presentation, that’s not accurate. Material identified as FRD can include a range of obviously sensitive information.

To be clear: The Post did not report that the FBI obtained information marked FRD. We did, however, report that, in its search, the FBI “came upon records that are extremely restricted, so much so that even some of the senior-most national security officials in the Biden administration weren’t authorized to review them.”

What the FBI found

We can begin where we left off last week, with that photograph of documents on a floor at Mar-a-Lago. This one:

As we explained when we detailed the contents of that picture last week, there’s a lot of information included in that picture that might not be obvious to a casual observer. For our purposes, that includes two elements: the classification markings shown and that “2A” placard.

The government often uses cover sheets to indicate the classification levels of different material. In true government fashion, these are standardized forms, SF-703 to SF-705. Each color indicates a different classification level.

As you can see in the photograph, though, the cover sheets also can include additional information. The document at bottom-center, for example, is labeled “SECRET/SCI.”

But that’s just a photograph of one box — or more accurately, a box within a box. The “2A” refers to documents found within a container the government identified as “Box 2.” In a separate filing, the Justice Department catalogued what it found in all of the other boxes it removed from Mar-a-Lago, including various photographs and newspaper clippings. This list, though, gives us our clearest sense of which documents with classification markings were found where — including dozens of empty folders identified as “confidential.”

The boxes were removed from two locations: Trump’s office at Mar-a-Lago and a storage room at the facility. Below, an index of what was found where. Since the markings on the documents in “2A” are often legible, we’ve included compartment indicators where possible.

It is important to note that the Justice Department’s interactions with Trump’s team before the search last month focused largely on the storage room. That’s the room that government officials visited in June and the one that they requested be additionally secured. Yet, in August, about a quarter of the documents with classification markings — and half of those marked as “top secret” — were found in Trump’s office.

Again, it is not clear what material those documents included. It’s not clear what the nuclear-related document was or where it was found.

But it does seem clear that the FBI found a multitude of documents marked as classified at Mar-a-Lago last month — documents that should have been returned to the government two months before.