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Over-the-Top Secret

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General Maynard: Mr. President, I'm here to bring you up to speed on a program we've been running out of Cheyenne Mountain for the past seven years.
President Henry Hayes: I've already had my top secret briefing.
Maynard: Yes, Mr. President. But not this.

You know the trope. In order to emphasize just how ridiculously important something is, it is classified as "Above Top Secret." Maybe it has a special name, maybe it doesn't, but the point is that high-ranking people who thought they were privy to every secret are...not. The head of an intelligence agency may come across a locked computer file requiring "Level 11" security clearance or some other fictional requirement.

This trope is the result of a common misconception about Security Clearances. In Real Life, just because you have a "Top Secret" security clearance doesn't mean you can read through the files of Area 51 or peruse Black Site files at your leisure. You still need to demonstrate a "Need to Know", a justifiable reason why you should have that information.

For example, a person working on destroyers would need to know information about destroyers, and might need to know details about cruisers if trying to work out doctrine in which the two classes of ship work together, but said person would have no reason to ask about tanks while on his current assignment.

Unfortunately, in fiction, "Need to Know" is generally just a mechanism used to postpone telling people things they DO need to know until some point after the moment when knowing the information would have helped. When someone talks about having "Code Word Clearance", they mean that the code-word of a particular project or operation is listed in their security file, which means that they can access any information filed under that code-word.

This is also why anyone talking about information being classified "Above Top-Secret" is ridiculous, since you can use the same compartmentalizing system to isolate especially sensitive information. And those compartmentalized systems often require an additional Sensitive Compartmented Information and/or Special Access Program clearance in addition to a regular TS. Which can be made even more complicated if it includes information regulated by the Department of Energy.

See also Classified Information, and Serial Escalation. If an entire organization is classified as such, you're likely looking at an instance of No Such Agency.

Not to be confused with Above Top Secret, which is a website about conspiracy theories.


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    Comic Books 
  • New Avengers: Despite being Director of SHIELD, and therefore supposedly privy to all SHIELD info, Maria Hill is exasperated to find out there's still things the tech people keep from her, even during a serious situation.

    Fan Works 
  • The Headhunt establishes the Federation Starfleet as using a two-layer clearance system inspired by real life systems. Before briefing her security chief on a break-in at Facility 4028 Eleya double-checks his security clearances. Dul'krah is cleared to see any data classified up to sigma-9, and can view data classified up to chi-4 if he's cleared for the code word. The relevant file is classified lambda-5 under the code word ICARIAN BRIGHT GEPPETTO.
  • Distance Learning for Fun and Profit...: When PRT Director Costa-Brown (secretly Alexandria) demands to know the identity of the Tinker behind Gravtec, arguing she has top secret clearance, she is told that (a) the responsible individual is not a Tinker, so it falls outside her remit, and (b) her clearance is irrelevant.
  • The Weaver Option: Before Taylor takes over the Nyx Sector, there is an absurdly large number of secret clearances due to previous administrations' corruption. Part of her government's work is to streamline this, resulting in a color-coded clearance system. Taylor herself doesn't have access to the top-level clearance, which is restricted to Inquisitors.
  • Aporia: After Chrysalis's disastrous attack at the Canterlot Wedding, Shining Armor receives a report from the Equestrian Office of Special Investigations which is labeled "Over The Top Secret, Burn Before Reading". Needless to say, he finds the whole thing ridiculous — as does Spike, who ends up following said instructions a moment later.

  • In GI Joe The Rise Of Cobra, the title organization is described as above top secret. Of course, sometimes it seems like everyone on the planet knows about them, so it's one of those examples. Then in the sequel, the COBRA President of the United States publicly announces GIJOE's destruction, no doubt leaving the entire world to wonder what he was talking about.
  • In Men in Black 3, J is told that the exact details of what happened between his partner K and Boris the Animal is above his pay grade. He's a senior agent only a step or two below the chief, so he's quite surprised. Shortly thereafter, he finds out about time travel— which is also above his pay grade.
    J: Okay — I need a raise.
  • Independence Day: The Secretary of Defense has kept the existence of a recovered spaceship and alien corpses at Area 51 a secret even from the President, in order to maintain Plausible Deniability, so the President doesn't learn about the secret laboratory beneath Area 51 until Julius Levinson confronts them and the truth comes out. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff points out that a good time to share this secret would have been some time after the aliens themselves arrived in force over Earth and before the military launched a fruitless attack against them without knowing anything about their capabilities.
  • In Transformers (2007), a high-ranking Sector 7 officer shows the Secretary of Defense some video of a Decepticon taken by a Mars probe that was reported having crashed, saying that it was "classified above top secret" by President Herbert Hoover (in the 1930's).
  • Anyone who even mentions General Warren Monger's secret monster storehouse in Monsters vs. Aliens receives a dart to the neck and passes out instantly.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • One-Shot The Consultant sees SHIELD Agent Jasper Sitwell realizes this, then lets it slide, since he's talking to a right-hand man of the director, they're both highly ranked, and considering the nature of secrets kept, there are some things better off not known.
      Sitwell: ...and they think we have him?
      Coulson: What's your clearance level?
      Sitwell: Heh, level 6, same as you.
      Sitwell: Oh come on, there's a level 7?
    • Note that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. states that Coulson is level 8note , and there are still some things he isn't cleared to know.
    • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap is also Level 8, and Nick Fury's level is 10. The intrigue starts when Fury discovers information that even he cannot access, supposedly sealed on his own authority. By the end of the film, however, all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets are public knowledge.
    • In season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson mentions that they got rid of the levels when they rebuilt S.H.I.E.L.D. after the events of Winter Soldier, implying a more traditional "need to know" structure.
      Coulson: They were stupid anyway.
    • As of season 4, the new Director replaces the levels with a color-based clearance scheme. The intent was to keep agents from feeling like they were being ranked in importance, but it ended up just confusing everyonenote . The Byzantine clearance structure is mocked several times, with characters noting that they have no idea what Daisy's Blue clearance actually means, and in a later episode Gen. Talbot half-jokingly offers Simmons "Day-Glo Pink" clearance if it will get results.
  • Tora! Tora! Tora!: It is mentioned early on that the President and his staff are not cleared to directly handle or view any of the signal decripts of Japanese message traffic due to a past incident where one such decrypted message was found in an office wastebin rather than properly disposed of. Thus, the absurd situation where the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces effectively lacks the clearance for some of the information the military is handling.
  • Joked about in The Forgotten, where cops talk about the Feds muscling in on their investigation, stating that he would say “God only knows” what they're doing, but he's no sure that He is in the loop.

  • In The Laundry Files, the Laundry is classified under a portion of the British Official Secrets Act that is itself classified: if you know about it, you're required to sign it in blood (to create a magical oath binding your tongue) to say that you won't reveal it. The Laundry itself uses a code word system to determine clearance for various projects and documents: main protagonist Bob Howard tells a security reviewer at one point that he and his wife Mo, also a Laundry officer, are careful to compare code words before discussing work, and Bob once fires off a very irate phone call to his superior to get himself cleared for whatever mission Mo just came home from that left her on the verge of a nervous breakdown if she can't talk to someone about it.
  • There is a collection of Australian espionage stories called For Australian Eyes Only, which is supposedly a real security classification designating intelligence that is not to be shared with allied foreign intelligence servicesnote .
  • The Enemy by Desmond Bagley. The protagonist Malcolm Jaggard works for a British intelligence organisation that deals with industrial espionage. He dates the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur, and on a whim runs her father's name through the computer. To his surprise all details are classified above his level. He goes and fills out the forms to access the information, only to find it's classified at an even higher level and he's hauled up before his boss to explain why he made the inquiry in the first place. The entrepreneur turns out to be a Soviet scientist who defected to Britain years before.
  • Frequently invoked in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, where the pilots of the Vulcan nuclear bomber force are under continuing and unremitting security surveillance. One, Flight Lieutenant Silk, is under suspicion because his wife is a member of Parliament associated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
  • Played for humor at the beginning of Starpilot's Grave, when Lieutenant Ari Rosselin-Metadi and Mistress (Lieutenant-Grade) Llannat Hyfid return to base from their kidnapping in the prior book and are promptly awarded the Space Force Achievement Medalnote  before the entire post save the gate guards and emergency room. The commandant then informs the audience that the citation is not only too classified to be read aloud in public, but classified at a level that even he was not cleared to read it (or mention the classification level) and only knew that it was signed by the Head of the Grand Council (Ari's father, General Jos Metadi, is a Joint Chiefs-equivalent level officer and appears to have called in some favors).

    Live Action TV 
  • The Stargate Program in the Stargate-verse.
    • In a variant, it's only above top secret for the United States— China insists that they are not going to make any effort to help America maintain The Masquerade, and Russia and other countries are only placated by giving them stakes in the Atlantis mission and similar expeditions.
    • The trope is discussed directly a few times in Stargate SG-1:
      • In "Touchstone" Col. Maybourne tells SG-1 that they're not cleared for some information; they point out they have the highest possible security clearance, and Maybourne says that that's only true within the military, and Area 51 is a civilian operation.
      • The team themselves often have to tell Muggles they run into that what they're doing is classified. In "Seth" they claim jurisdiction over an investigation into a cult (the cult leader was an undercover Goa'uld). The officer in charge protests and says that he has "top-level clearance", to which O'Neill replies "Not top enough." He is finally convinced to shut up and do what O'Neill says when none other than the President of the United States calls him and confirms the team's authority.
      • And then of course there's the page quote, where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is briefing the newly elected President Hayes on the Stargate program.
    • Stargate Atlantis occasionally had the cast complaining that they couldn't tell anyone back home where they were because it was classified. This came to a head at the end of the first season, where everyone records a farewell message to their loved ones, just in case they don't survive. Zalenka's message is an enthusiastic, detailed description of Atlantis rising up from the ocean floor (in unsubtitled Czech). Lt Ford then asks if he said anything that would require security clearance. Zalenka gets an Oh, Crap! expression.
      Beckett: We Earthlings are a scrappy bunch!
      Ford: You can't say "Earthlings".
      Beckett: [My mother] knows I'm from Earth, son! That's not a bloody secret!
  • There's an episode of The Avengers (1960s) where it's mentioned that British Intelligence has at least two secrecy classifications: "Top Hush" for regular top secret material, and for anything exceptionally sensitive, "Button Lip".
  • Scandal sometimes deals with government secrets that are deemed too sensitive to be revealed to the President's Chief of Staff or even the President himself. In particular the work Huck did for the government was so horrifyingly illegal that his record is kept secret from the White House even after Huck becomes the main suspect in an attempt on the President's life.
  • Zig-Zagged on Bones. The Victim of the Week was ex-CIA, and the CIA won't tell Booth & Brennan anything because they don't have high enough clearance. Booth points out that he does have high enough clearance. The CIA man makes Brennan leave the room, though, because she doesn't. As she's leaving (and in full view of the CIA man), Booth assures her that he'll fill her in later.
  • Seven Days
    • The project itself is so classified that the President knows nothing about it. After a couple of encounters with Parker, he does know he is part of something and is determined to find out. His clearance is insufficient.
    • There was an episode where Parker had a run-in with some unit, and stated he had a very high clearance level. A soldier from the unit stated that he has a level high enough to shoot Parker on the spot.
  • The X-Files is filled with these, some of which being so secret that it seems no one really seems to know the secret information, only knowing bits and pieces of it.
    Deep Throat: There are limits to my knowledge, Mister Mulder. Inside the intelligence community, there are so-called "black organizations." Groups within groups conducting covert activities, unknown at the highest levels of power.
  • The characters of Spooks often talk about various classifications of files in regards of how tightly their contents are meant to be protected. The series 4 episode 'Diana' goes so far as to mention a "No Eyes" file: one that was never meant to be taken out of the room it was stored in.
  • Blake's 7
    • In "Animals", Double-X information can only be passed verbally, with no stored records. Servalan has to track down a member of the project team and deliver some unsubtle threats before finding out what she wants to know, and she's a commissioner in the Secret Police at the time.
    • The crew of the Liberator encounter the planet Horizon at the edge of the galaxy when they nearly run into the forceshield protecting it. There's no information on the planet whatsoever in their databanks, so they later get a pursuing Federation flotilla to destroy itself by colliding with the same forceshield, betting their lives on the likelihood that the Federation mooks won't be any better informed.
    • Finding the location of Star One (a base containing the Master Computer which controls the Federation) is the Story Arc for Season Two. It's so secret that anyone who could possibly know its location has either been killed or brainwashed into forgetting it. This backfires badly because when things start going wrong with Star One, even the people running the Federation don't know where it is!
  • In Star Trek: Discovery, there's the Battle near Xaeha, in which the Discovery, the Enterprise, the Klingons and others teamed up to battle the mad AI Control. Officially, Discovery was lost with all hands, but only a select few know they actually jumped to the future and that truth is also under lock and key to prevent Control from returning.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Paranoia, the highest security clearance is Ultraviolet. Everyone knows this. The Iceman Returneth features clones of a couple of The Computer's original programmers from the Old Reckoning, assigned Gamma Clearance and entrusted with maintaining its core systems. Later editions mention rumors that Gamma Clearance or something like it exists, which even Ultraviolets are warned not to discuss without clearly stating that it doesn't— and even if they believe otherwise, probably the best they can do is manipulate their rivals into prying into the subject and getting busted for it.

    Video Games 
  • In Alpha Protocol, the titular program is stated to 'not exist.' "And the agencies that suspect we might exist? They don't exist either." It's so top secret that no one even knows where the base is; even top-level agents are drugged unconscious and shipped halfway around the world before being woken up.
  • The terrorist organization Cerberus was like this in Mass Effect: an Alliance Navy admiral had to go to the Shadow Broker in order to find anything at all about them. Then came Mass Effect 2 and that was thrown completely out the window in favor of them being a group that everyone knows about who slaps their logo on everything remotely related to them.
  • Iron Helix: The very existence of the Iron Helix weapon was so secret that the crew of the ship that was transporting it didn't even know they were transporting it.
  • Deus Ex first introduces its own fictional security clearance hierarchy used within UNATCO, with nine levels of security named after the Hierarchy of Angels, and then applies this trope by later revealing there is "God-level" clearance even above that.
  • Phantom Doctrine: "Above Top Secret" is the title of the first chapter in the KGB campaign, alluding to the counter-intelligence nature of Agent Kodiak's cell on trying to weed out agents within the Soviet bureaucracy. The local militsiya are not on your side, for instance.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation: In one 001 proposal, the newly appointed O5 council tries to figure out why O5-13 is the only one around from the old council. When they ask the Ethics Committee, they get the answer that it is "Above [their] clearance".note 
    O5-11: Above your security clearance? You're on the Council, there simply aren't things "outside your jurisdiction".

    Real Life 
  • During World War II, the fact that Britain had cracked most German coded communications was about the most secret fact on the Allied side — classified "Ultra". Exactly what the consequences of this were is still somewhat debated by historiansnote , but there's a basic problem with this sort of situation: every time you act on your knowledge of enemy communications, you risk that enemy deducing what you've done. Most of what was done to conceal the secret of Ultra was actually rather mundane— things like having a reconnaissance flight "happen" to chance on enemy ships, or sending transmissions (on systems they knew the Germans had broken into) praising fictitious local agents for their solid intelligence work after the fact, to send the Germans on a fruitless spy hunt. But it was alleged that the bombing raid that obliterated much of Coventry was let through rather than risk the secret. That's since been shown to be untrue, but yes, it was seriously claimed that Winston Churchill sacrificed an entire city to keep that secret. Similar precautions were taken in regards to "Magic", which was the corresponding program for intercepting and decrypting Japanese communications.
    • There is a confirmed story that when the King of England toured Bletchley Park during the war and recognized one of the women working there, he asked her what she did there, and she told him that she wasn't permitted to say. Which is understandable since, while British monarchs technically retain some governmental authority, in practice they've been reduced to figureheads.
  • Harry Truman was never told about the Manhattan Project during his term as Vice President, he was only informed upon his promotion to President. Considering that his predecessor as Vice President is really only famous for saying that the office "wasn't worth a bucket of warm piss", it highlights just how useless the VPOTUS historically is. In fact, Stalin had more knowledge about the Manhattan Project than Truman.
    • The President, on the other hand, has nearly absolute authority over classified information, since by law the office of POTUS is the source of all classification authority, and can declassify almost anything if he so chooses (the exceptions being certain documents that can't be declassified by ANYONE- nuclear secrets and ongoing espionage deployments being some examples).note  But even then, the President can't just browse through a database of all the top secret information to satisfy his own curiosity. For one thing, no single database containing all the nation's top secret info exists, because it would be such an obvious security risk if an enemy spy or hacker ever breached it. Instead, the President would order somebody involved with any given top secret program to read him into it. If it's urgent that the President know right away (as in the case of Truman and the Manhattan Project, since after Roosevelt's death his authorization was needed to use the atomic bomb in combat), one of the higher-ups in the classified program will come to the President and tell him that he needs to be read in. If the President isn't seen as specifically needing to know about a program, on the other hand, nobody will tell him that it exists. This is often seen as for the President's own good, because he can't be politically harmed by something that he had nothing to do with. And even with his legal authority to demand access to any classified information, the President can't demand access to a program whose very existence he has no inkling of.
    • The same applies to the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, and chairs and ranking members of House and Senate committees, especially the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, which by law have access to a great deal of classified information. They often get closed-door classified briefings about things that Congress as a whole is not allowed to know. But that information isn't always volunteered to them without being directly demanded. Sometimes this is for legitimate national security reasons, other times it's concealed for shadier purposes. In any event, unless they know enough about a program to specifically demand more information about it, they're completely reliant on executive agencies to deem them to have a need to know.
  • During the 2022 investigation into Donald Trump's mishandling of government documents, the general public became aware of how certain documents are labelled by the US government, including: TS (Top Secret), TS//SCI (Top Secret//Sensitive Compartmented Informationnote ), HCS (HUMINT [Human Intelligence] Control Systemnote ), ORCON (Originator Controllednote ), and NOFORN (No Foreignnote ).
  • In Russia, совершенно секретно (top secret) is not the highest classification. There is an extra category named особой важности (of special importance) that ranks above it.

This topic was never described, are we clear? It never happened.


Video Example(s):


"Not a Joke, Mr. President"

"Inauguration". The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reads the newly inaugurated President Henry Hayes in on the Stargate program. The President's initial reaction is to assume that the general is playing a joke on him and go to deal with a foreign policy problem, but "The ex-President of Togo will have to wait, sir. This is not a joke."

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

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