On June 13, former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in response to an historic federal indictment concerning the mishandling of highly classified U.S. intelligence information. The 37-count indictment includes charges under the Espionage Act.
Tess Bridgeman and Brianna Rosen laid out some of the potential ramifications last week for Just Security.
Below, top experts and former senior intelligence officials analyze the indictment, the description of the classified documents, and what it all means for national security going forward.
John Sipher (@john_sipher), 28-year CIA veteran with multiple tours overseas as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station in Europe, Asia, and in high-threat environments:
A number of observers have commented that sloppy handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago risked their exposure to hostile intelligence services. While I suppose that is plausible, I don’t think that is the damage we should be worried about. If I had to guess, the United States’ enemies have not bothered an attempt to get a look at the documents in his bathroom and storage areas of the former president’s residence.
Instead, we have bigger worries.
Almost everyone that worked closely with Trump at the White House reported his disinterest in national security issues and disregard for much of anything that didn’t provide him a personal, political, or financial gain. The mishandling of classified documents outlined in the indictment merely fits a long-standing pattern of behavior. Why would the Chinese, Russians or anyone else risk a break-in to Mar-a-Lago when they know that Trump is likely to brag to friends and others over the phone? Intercepting phone calls is child’s play. I suspect that foreign intelligence agencies determined as early as 2016 that the way to pick up secrets from the White House was to tap his phones, and the phones of his personal friends like Rudy Giuliani and others. Foreign agencies also likely instructed their leaders to suck up to Trump in private meetings in expectation that he would exceed his brief.
In this sense, the documents at Mar-a-Lago are the least of our concern. It is the pattern of behavior they symbolize that should scare us as to how he has been operating over the past seven years. We have seen glimpses in Trump’s meeting with the Russian foreign minister in the White House, and his private conversations with Putin in Helsinki and elsewhere.
Also, a much bigger concern than the Mar-a- Lago documents themselves is the likely loss of credibility, trust and reputation with our allies. The bulk of the secrets collected by our intelligence agencies come from close cooperation with allied and friendly services around the world. Those organizations trust us with their secrets because past administrations took their concerns seriously and operated with professionalism and discretion. Why would any country risk sharing its closest secrets with the United States when even the President and those around them don’t have even the slightest attention to security?
I fear that what we see in the indictment of documents held at Mar-a-Lago is just the tip of the iceberg of the national security damage that Trump inflicted on the United States.
Alex Finley (@alexzfinley), former officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where she served in West Africa and Europe:
The indictment’s list of documents raises a number of national security issues.
Only a portion of the documents recovered are actually being used in the indictment. These are documents that the originating agency concluded could be declassified (or declassified enough for a trial) without causing too much damage. But we need to remember the FBI found many more documents that are not included in this list and are probably even more sensitive.
That said, the list in the indictment is bad enough. It includes documents marked “HCS,” meaning the intelligence is derived from human sources. Likely, the documents contain some kind of descriptor of the source (whether the source had first-hand access to the information, for example), which, while generic, can narrow down the possibilities about who is providing the information.
Given my time working with Human Intelligence (HUMINT), it is these HUMINT Control System (HCS) documents that enrage me the most. Sources and U.S.intelligence officers take great risks to get this kind of intelligence and make an enormous effort to make sure the source and the intelligence officer remain safe. Trump disregarded all of that, which would be bad enough for a private citizen, but is even worse coming from a former commander in chief.
The other markings on the documents include imagery, signals intelligence, and nuclear secrets. They include plans and intentions of foreign countries, but also of the United States, which means anyone with access would know U.S. capabilities or lack thereof.
Who had access? These documents were just stacked all around Mar-a-Lago, on ballroom stages and in bathrooms. We know foreign spies have tried to gain access to Mar-a-Lago, and it seems it would be an easy target. Again, the intelligence community goes to great lengths to keep this kind of intelligence secure. It isn’t meant for foreign eyes, nor is it meant for regular folks to grab a quick read about nuclear secrets before heading to the omelet bar.
If Trump is this reckless and cavalier with national security secrets now, imagine how he was when he was president and had access to even more. How much did he share with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Leader Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or a random golfer at Mar-a-Lago with zero care about the consequences, as if the secrets are just an accessory to show off to people?
Erik Dahl (@ErikJDahl1), associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and faculty member of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
It’s easy to become blasé about government secrets, because it seems like every week we hear about another leak of classified information, or another case of documents being mishandled. The United States also clearly has a problem of too many secrets, too many people with high level clearances able to see and potentially misuse classified documents, and not enough effective security measures to keep everything secure.
But at least some of the documents in this case appear to be extraordinarily sensitive—so highly classified that even though the indictment provides a remarkable amount of detail on the nature of the documents and their classification levels, in several cases the code words used as part of the classification were redacted. When even the classification level of a document is itself classified, that’s a strong indication that the document really, truly, needs to be kept secret. Other document markings tell us that some of those documents include intelligence derived from sensitive collection methods including human intelligence and signals intelligence, and were the products of a wide variety of intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office.
These documents are clearly not just any classified material, but the kind of secrets that, if revealed to the nation’s enemies, could reveal the sensitive sources and methods that are widely considered to be the crown jewels of American intelligence.