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Sealed Orders

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In a military context, briefing orders is a tricky business because the risk of intel leaks is always there, looming on the horizon. That's why the most sensitive operations are only relayed at the very last moment to the highest-ranking officer. If it's a particularly complex endeavor, then each detail will be released on a need-to-know basis.

To clarify, The Squad as a whole may be ordered to mobilize to a certain location but only the pilot has the coordinates. It's only once they arrive, not a second before, and regardless of requests for clarification, that the sergeant receives the specifics of the task from Mission Control. Be it assassinating someone, blowing up a tactical objective, or retrieving some sort of Phlebotinum.

Compare En Route Sum-Up, when the briefing is done during the mobilization, not upon arrival.


Anime & Manga

  • Code Geass: Lelouch of the Re;surrection: One of the tests Lelouch does to figure out what Chamna's Geass is to come up with a number of battle plans and have C.C. choose which to use without any further input from him. Since C.C. is immune to Geass, the fact that the new plans were predicted proves that it wasn't mind reading.
  • KanColle: Since the enemy has been intercepting their communications, The ship-girls sent to area AL received sealed orders to join the attack on Base MI, setting up their Big Damn Heroes moment.
  • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: When the Titans negotiate with the Argama's crew over returning the stolen Gundam Mk IIs, the message Emma delivers is sealed until delivery. The same for Jerrid's order to shoot the object being sent to the Argama if they fight back. Bask did this to conceal from his own troops that he was holding Kamille's parents hostage, so Jerrid wouldn't hesitate to kill Kamille's captive mother (as he assume it was a bomb he was meant to detonate).

Comic Books

  • Albedo: Erma Felna EDF: One issue reveals that there's a specific protocol for dealing with ILR prisoners that is only disclosed after an officer has taken such a prisoner and asked Mission Control what to do. The orders are sent to their Data Pad and consist, essentially, of executing the prisoners, especially if they are ConFed Lepins.
  • Secret Warriors: Daisy's team disperses this way in issue 13.

Fan Works

  • "Iconian War Anthology": Klingon Intelligence has located what they believe is an Iconian Gateway capable of reaching Fek'ihri space. Task Force 72 is assigned to assault it but is not relayed this information until it arrives at a critical Fek'ihri installation.

Films — Animation

  • WALL•E: AUTO, the AI controlling the ships' functions, maintenance, and route, has sealed orders to not return to Earth. Nobody, human or robot, is aware of this but AUTO. The trope is subverted because the Axiom's human captains simply were not to know about it, not even if plant life is confirmed.

Films — Live-Action

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: HAL's sealed orders, and the anxiety over having to lie, are what causes him to go psychotic and murder the crew.
  • Captain Horatio Hornblower: Discussed. At the beginning, the narrator says that Hornblower's ship sailed "under the most secret of sealed orders".
  • The Dark Knight: The Joker starts targeting the highest echelons of Gotham's judiciary system in rapid succession to prevent them from efficiently taking down the Mob. Judge Janet Surillo, the one who gave out most of the Mob's sentences, is found to be targeted next, a couple of cops go to her house and tell her she needs to move to a secure location. They handed her an envelope with the location as she gets into her car to drive. However, this is subverted because it's a trap. The cops are stooges (not clear if they're on the Mob's payroll or the Joker's), the card just says her destination is "Up", and she gets about a second to process this before her car explodes.
  • Das Boot: U-96 barely survives a convoy attack and having used most of their fuel, they decide to return to their home port in France. Unfortunately, they then get a new message through the Enigma code machine which is "for captain's eyes only." He then gets the necessary ciphers from a safe, only to learn that their orders are to head for the Mediterranean.
  • Doctor Strangelove: The bomber crews only unseal their targeting orders after the attack command is given. In the latter, they consist of one word — "MOSCOW".
  • Fail Safe: The bomber crew is instructed to only read what their target is—aka "MOSCOW"— after they are ordered to attack.
  • The Hunt for Red October: For security, the Red October's mission orders are sealed and locked into a safe until after she leaves port. Once the submarine is underway, Ramius removes the orders and reads them — and then lies to the rest of the crew about what they say.
  • Midway (2019): Admiral Halsey receives a sealed envelope containing secret orders in the 2nd act of the film, which is revealed shortly thereafter to be a rendezvous with an Allied fleet centered around the USS Hornet. The Enterprise and its escorts would then accompany the Hornet to the waters off the Japanese coast, in order to launch a daring raid led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle.
  • Push centers around Sealed Orders to get around the mind reading capabilities of a psychic. The one who came up with the plan also has his memory of coming up with it wiped to further ensure its success.
  • Revenge of the Sith: The clone troopers of the Republic's Grand Army have implanted numbered sealed orders in their biological programming. They instinctually know what to do when a higher-up activates the command but not a second before. The clones aren't even aware of this.


  • 1632: Cardinal Richelieu has become fond of using sealed orders after reading about them in an up-time book, preventing drunken sailors on shore leave from accidentally spilling secrets.
  • Aubrey-Maturin: This trope makes an appearance in "The Commodore". O'Brian even goes into detail about how they come with lead and are to be thrown overboard if the ship is taken.
  • Codex Alera: In "Princeps' Fury", Tavi foils the Vord's ability to read minds by setting up whole strings of sealed orders given to several people with strict instructions to open each one only when told to by the preceding order.
  • ''A Face Like Glass': The Kleptomancer writes down what he plans to do, and then edits his memories to forget what they were. This way, Caverna's Chessmasters can't predict his movements because even he doesn't know them until it's time to do it.
  • Honor Harrington: This is used numerous times in the series, by all sides of the various conflicts. The first and probably most notable one involved a double deception involving false orders and sealed orders to throw off enemy spies allowing Admiral White Haven to ambush a Havenite attack force in Yeltsin.
  • The Hunt for Red October: Captain Ramius and Political Officer Putin get their sealed orders from a dual-keyed safe after they sail. Ramius then breaks Putin's neck, spills tea on the deck near the dead man's feet to make it look like he slipped, and substitutes the actual orders with orders to sail to Cuba via the American coastline.
  • Mission to Horatius: Starfleet command has sent Kirk out with a set, meaning he can't even give a ballpark estimate to a furious McCoy's demands as to when they would be planetside again.
  • Retief: Sealed Orders is an alternate title for Retief of the Red-Tape Mountain. Retief has sealed orders for how to handle a diplomatic dispute on the planet Adobe. Since he knows his superior doesn't know a hawk from a Groaci nose flute, he plays the whole affair by ear and after succeeding admirably, dumps the still-unopened orders into an incinerator.
  • Literature/Safehold: The Church writes their orders in the Temple where they know Charisian spies haven't infiltrated. The orders aren't revealed until the last moment possible so that, even if the Charisians do find out what's in them, the time they have to respond is drastically reduced.
  • Star Trek Expanded Universe:
    • "Mission to Horatius": Enterprise's mission (to investigate a distress signal) is in this form.
    • "Rihannsu: The Empty Chair": Jim Kirk is secretly under orders directly from the President of the Federation when he launches his covert mission into the Romulan Empire, which allows him to call in a Starfleet battle group as The Cavalry at the critical Battle of Augo midway through the ensuing Romulan revolution.
    • The novelization of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Encounter at Farpoint" had Captain Picard being given sealed orders about what he was to do when Enterprise reached Farpoint Station.
  • Sword Art Online: Alternative Gun Gale Online: In the first Squad Jam, M is carrying a letter to be read after the first hour. It was a letter from Pitohui telling him that if he's killed during the tourney, she'll kill him in real life. However, nowhere in the letter did it mention anything about resigning. This leads him to draw his pistol on LLENN and trying to betray her in hopes that the squad leader status would be passed onto him, which he would use to resign from the tourney and save himself.

Live-Action TV

Mythology & Religion

  • The Bible: When King David slept with the wife of Uriah, David eventually murdered him through this method: he sent sealed orders through Uriah to the general, which instructed the army to pull back and let Uriah die in the heat of the battle.

Tabletop Games

  • Chess: A variant on sealed orders used to occur during adjournments, when a chess match was suspended for the day (i.e., dinner time) to be continued at a later time. The player whose turn it is to move writes down what his move will be and then seals it up and hands it to the arbiter. When the match resumed, the order was to be revealed and the game would continue from there. Both players were free to analyze the position for hours, with the help of their seconds, during the adjournment period. The sealed move ensured that neither player could know what the other would do next during this lengthy analysis. Otherwise, the player next to move would get a huge advantage from having hours to consider what to do. Nowadays, the advent of powerful chess computers has made adjournments a thing of the past –- there would be no way to stop either player from firing up the latest chess software and just memorizing its recommendations. Instead, modern chess competitions simply speed up the time limits so that adjournments aren't necessary.


  • Hamlet: Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England as messengers. Unbeknownst to them, the envelope contains orders to execute their old friend Hamlet — Claudius makes sure to seal it and forbids them from opening it. They would only know learn this information after they've delivered the letter.
  • The 2012 play The Letter of Last Resort by David Greig (aired as a BBC radio drama and played in the Tricycle Theater) follows a Prime Minister late in her first day in office when she must, as per protocol, write a new Letter of Last Resort for the nation's missile submarines. As a Naïve Newcomer, her advisor explains to her what the Letters are supposed to do and she then struggles with what the letter should say; considering what would be supposedly happening to the United Kingdom if they are ever opened. She tries several drafts, going from being pretty plain in her supposed final orders up to trying to provide comforting words to the imaginary captain.

Video Games

  • Half-Life: Opposing Force, the incoming Marines are given their alternate orders just before arriving at Black Mesa. Shepherd's squad, of course, gets shot down before they receive their new orders.
  • The Kobayashi Alternative. Captain Kirk receives sealed orders to locate Lieutenant Sulu's missing ship and neutralize whatever caused it to disappear.

Real Life

  • The Knights Templar went down so fast partly because Philip IV of France's orders to arrest the Templars were issued sealed, so nobody (not even the omnipresent Templars) knows what is inside them until they were all opened simultaneously on Friday, 13 October 1307.
  • British nuclear strategy has their orders for a "the Government has been wiped" situation. The captains of the Royal Navy's four Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines are each given a sealed handwritten letter by the Prime Minister when he or she enters office, that can only be opened if Royal Navy boomers can't detect signs of life from the country. They are called the Letters of Last Resort and can vary from a full retaliatory strike to taking orders from Australia, depending on what the current Prime Minister decided when he or she wrote them. The letters are destroyed unread when the PM changes.
  • Surprise travel companies allow particularly adventurous travelers to go on arranged tours without even knowing where they're going until they're at the airport itself on the day of departure. The more elaborate ones will send something like sealed-wax envelopes containing their tickets and a customized journal for their curated trip, with instructions not to open the envelope until arrival at the airport so as to preserve the surprise until then.