Difference between Secret and Top Secret

Key Difference: ‘Secret’ classification is applied to documents that could cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if it becomes available to the public. These documents require serious clearance, which includes background checks, release forms as well as Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA). The ‘Top Secret’ security clearance is a higher level security clearance compared to ‘secret’ and is considered to cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’ to national security if information is available to the public.

The meaning of a secret is no secret actually. Everyone knows that a secret is information that is meant for some ears only. Everyone is entitled to have secrets and many people do. Secret is any information that someone wants to keep in hiding. So, what is top secret? In basic usage, this term is no different from secret, as both refer to information that is not meant to go out. However, this term means something completely different when using it for government classifications. Secret and Top Secret are two levels of classifications that are used when dealing with classified information. This security clearance is most popular used by the United States Government. Other countries also have such policies in place.

Information is classified based on its importance and its ability to wreak havoc. Like everything else, information works in a hierarchy, the lowest level is information that is available to almost everyone, with each rising step requiring specific approval for higher authorities. In this technological world, information has become quite costly and can cause a lot of problems for many people. Hence, certain information is provided on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. The classification levels include: Unclassified, Restricted, Confidential, Secret and Top Secret.

Unclassified information is information that is available to low-level government officers or authoritative figures such as police, sheriffs, etc. Though, it is not a official classification level, it is considered as an unofficial level for any government documents that do not have a classification level market. These documents do not require a special security clearance. Restricted documents are considered to cause ‘undesirable effects’ if available to the public. This classification requires the minimal security clearance. Confidential marked documents are considered to cause ‘damage’ to national security if it becomes public.

 ‘Secret’ classification is applied to documents that could cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if it becomes available to the public. These documents require serious clearance, which includes background checks, release forms as well as Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA). The FBI website states the secret security clearance as: A Secret security clearance may be granted to those persons that have a "need-to-know" national security information, classified at the Confidential or Secret level. It is generally the most appropriate security clearance for state and local law enforcement officials that do not routinely work on an FBI Task Force or in an FBI facility.”

The ‘Top Secret’ security clearance is a higher level security clearance compared to ‘secret’ and is considered to cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’ to national security if information is available to the public. According to the FBI website the information is most suitable “for law enforcement officers assigned to FBI Task Forces housed in FBI facilities.” This type of security clearance requires a 10-year background check of the person as well as many approval forms and NDAs. The information under this classification is known as "Sensitive Compartmented Information" (SCI) or Special Access Programs (SAP)” and one requires a special access or approval for accessing the information.

Depending on the job of the individual, they can apply for a security clearance for certain kinds of information. The clearances are not available for anyone. Although many shows and movies portray people flaunting information left and right, or obtaining the information easily. However, in reality it takes months to process and acquire a security clearance for ‘Secret’ and ‘Top Secret’ information.

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