SCIFs Are Spy-proof Places for America's Top Secrets

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
The Situation Room at the White House is a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. Official White House Photo/Chuck Kennedy

In August 2022, when FBI agents armed with a search warrant went to Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump's Florida home, they seized a trove of government documents, including classified material that they found in Trump's personal office and in a basement storage room, according to a court filing.

Some of the documents were not only deemed top secret but also designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). That's the term used for secrets deemed so sensitive that only a select number of individuals are allowed to see them on a need-to-know basis, and only in a situation where elaborate precautions are in place to keep them safe from spies and surveillance.


What Is a SCIF?

The right place for such documents would be a SCIF, short for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which is the U.S. government's term for a place that's been designed and outfitted so that documents can be stored and handled with the least amount of risk to national security. A SCIF can be a single room or several rooms, but it also can take up a much larger area.

Inside a SCIF, "the information you are reading requires the highest degree of protection and, if disclosed, could do grave damage to America's national security, as well as the security of our allies," former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer explained in a 2022 column for the South Bend Tribune.


From a SCIF in his hotel room in Rio de Janeiro, then-U.S. President Barack Obama (center) authorized military action in Libya. Then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is on the right with then-Chief of Staff William M. Daley, on the left.
Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.

SCIFs have been around for decades. One former U.S. government official who has extensive experience with SCIFs is Robert L. Deitz, a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University who served as general counsel for the National Security Agency (NSA) from 1998 to 2006. At NSA, he notes, the entire building he worked in was a SCIF.


How Is a SCIF Accessed?

The SCIF's first level of protection is limiting who has access to it. To enter the facility, you need a security clearance. (Some, though not all, top secret documents also require a person to be "read into" a particular code-word program to have access.)

"I'm not sure that it's ever been empirically proven, but the common wisdom is that the more people who know a secret, the more likely it is to leak out," Deitz says.


That puts officials who have the privilege of entering a SCIF under considerable pressure. "When you first get a security clearance and you're reading top secret documents, it's like, 'wow, this is really cool,'" Deitz recalls. But the novelty soon vanishes, when officials realize that they have to be tight-lipped around spouses and friends. "I teach now, and from time to time, I have to stop and think, can I say this?" Deitz says. "I mean, you have to be very, very careful about what you say and to whom you say it." Such caution "becomes part of your DNA," he says.

According to the U.S. government's exacting standards, SCIFs are required to have special walls, floors and ceilings that contain a minimum of 8 inches (20 centimeters) of concrete, doors equipped with special combination locks and deadbolts, and non-opening windows equipped with alarms if they're lower than 18 feet (5 meters) from the ground. SCIFs are designed to block both sound and electronic signals from being able to leave the room. Even the heating and ventilation ducts contain security devices.

That doesn't come cheap. The Pentagon requested nearly $34 million to build a SCIF at a U.S. Air Force Base back in 2011, according to correspondence with Congress.

There are similarly stringent rules about working with secrets inside a SCIF. Sensitive material is stored in safes, and it has to be put back and locked up when an official leaves. "That's one of the great things about working in the government, particularly on the defense side," Deitz says. "At the end of the day, you have a clean desk."

Cell phones aren't allowed inside a SCIF, though officials are allowed to make calls on a special secure phone. They are allowed to take notes — which themselves become classified material. Any paperwork that's discarded must go into special "burn bags," which are carefully handled until they're placed in an incinerator and destroyed.


With SCIF Access Comes Great Responsibility

One of the system's vulnerable points is the president himself, who is not required to undergo a security check before accessing government secrets. "A president, sort of by definition, can see anything he wants," Deitz says.

For that reason, intelligence community officials are very careful with what Deitz describes as "the crown jewels" — that is, information whose leakage might have particularly grave consequences.


"There have been instances in which things haven't been shown to a president, just because," he says. "It wasn't necessary for anything the president was doing. And you know, the more people that know something — the president entertains world leaders, he talks to his buds. There's no need to run those kinds of risks." And while Deitz wasn't part of the last administration, "I would be shocked if stuff wasn't kept from Trump," he says.

It's customary for the government to build SCIFs at presidents' homes, so that they can work with secrets while they're away from the White House, and Trump reportedly had a SCIF at Mar-a-Lago during his presidency. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Trump's former SCIF was located on Mar-a-Lago's second floor, and was visible from the club's main sitting area. It was dismantled after Trump was defeated for reelection by current President Joe Biden.


Frequently Answered Questions

What does SCIF stand for?
SCIF stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.