Since August 8th, when FBI agents entered former President Trump’s Florida residence in search of government documents that he had failed to return, much has been said about finding TOP SECRET documents among materials he and his lawyers had represented were not at the residence.
This is very serious on multiple levels….here’s why.
My point of view comes from handling, reading and protecting TOP SECRET documents for the eight years I served in the White House. Many of these documents carried the SCI label meaning they were deemed Sensitive Compartmented Information and thus were extremely sensitive to our nation’s national security. And, for the four years I was the chief of staff to Vice President Bush, I received and reviewed one of the most highly protected documents, the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB). It was provided by a CIA briefer six times a week to the Vice President and me and we returned every copy to them before they left the room.
The importance of the discoveries in Florida has nothing to do, in my mind, with politics. Had these documents, or even a fraction of them, been found at a staff member’s home, the individual would have been investigated, fired and most likely prosecuted.
Because the mishandling of classified information puts lives at risk and degrades our ability to gather intelligence. And, that means our nation’s leading decision makers from the Congress, through key agencies and up to the President and his staff will not get vital insights needed to make informed foreign policy and national security decisions.
As a nation, we invest billions of dollars a year and engage thousands of people, some whose lives are at risk every day, to ensure our decision makers have the best intelligence in the world about what is happening and likely to happen around the world. This protects us from terrorists. This allows us to reduce the threat of terrorism here and abroad because terrorists know we are highly likely to find, capture or kill those who plan and execute murderous acts.
The information analyzed and turned into intelligence comes from extraordinary technology and from extraordinary people.
One recent example, when the US made clear to Ukraine that Russia’s Putin was going to invade, it wasn’t guessing. It had knowledge from multiple sources and while leaders in Europe doubted Putin would go as far as an invasion, America’s leaders knew otherwise.
Among the people I met while in government, the intelligence analysts were among the brightest, most dedicated and most impressive of individuals. They provided classified briefings before every trip we took (and, I traveled with the Vice President to more than 60 countries in four years). All these analysts want to do is get it right for our nation’s leaders. And, they work to convey the information in ways that it will best be understood often tailoring presentations to fit the individual decision maker’s preference for reviewing the intelligence.
The reason we have a classification system is to protect what we know and how we know it. Once this is penetrated by any of the many actors across the globe who seek to know what we know and how we know it, the intelligence goes away. And, because we depend upon people across the globe to share information with us, often at great personal risk, if those people have cause to doubt our ability to protect the information, the intelligence goes away.
For all these reasons, I and so many others who have handled and be “read in” to some of the nation’s most highly classified programs are horrified at the descriptions coming out about the documents found at a former official’s home. Aside from false statements about turning over all the documents (a violation of the law in itself), the low level of security and even no security around TOP SECRET documents causes irreparable harm. And, this is true even if nothing in the treasure trove of documents was shared with any individual because it creates a question about whether the US can be trusted. But, for me, it is hard to imagine information has not been shared. Why else would so much have been taken and retained, even when lawyers insisted everything was returned.
Perhaps the most stunning revelations came just a few days ago as details of what was found and where it was found were released by the court. While incredible in scope, the list of what was taken from the former President’s office is jaw dropping. I’ll grant it is probably a large office, but look at the list below and ask what in the world was someone thinking when they retained and refused to acknowledge they kept close at hand in their personal office the following:
2 documents marked confidential
7 documents marked top secret
15 documents marked secret
43 empty folders marked for classified document
28 empty folders marked “return to staff secretary/military aide”
Along with other government documents, magazines and newspapers
Of course, when added to thousands of other documents found in storage and other areas of the residence, the case just gets worse.
Because of the real threat to our national security, there are strict laws and punishments related to the mishandling of just one of the documents like those labeled above. And, for every “empty” folder, there were classified documents associated. Where are those? Were they recovered? We may never know.
I shared in a discussion taking place this past last month when asked why the FBI raided the former President’s home, that the FBI doesn’t really get to decide which federal law violations it investigates. The same rule applies to individuals. No one gets to decide which laws to obey and which they can violate; and if they elect to do so they assume a risk of prosecution for the violations.
Getting a full accounting of what damage has been done is vitally important. Sending a clear signal to those in government and those who help us around the world that we take this seriously is vitally important. At this stage, I, for one, do not see how we do all of that without prosecuting those who took, retained and misrepresented to federal officials that they returned what they had taken. Protect our nations! Put the cuffs on someone!
Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore.
From the NY TIMES NYT Review of Documents taken August 8th
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