Trump’s possession of intelligence documents raises national security fears

The revelation that former President Trump had some of the nation’s most closely guarded forms of intelligence in his Florida home renews questions about potentially serious risks to US national security.

The affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for Trump’s home released on Friday reveals why the government was so alarmed: Among an initial batch of 184 classified documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago in January, secrets were obtained from ” clandestine human sources”, prohibited information. to be shared with foreign governments and information obtained by monitoring “foreign communication signals”.

Finding 25 sets of highly classified documents was enough to prompt the Justice Department – after months of unsuccessful negotiations and a subpoena for Trump – to seek a search warrant, securing 11 other sets of documents containing more sensitive material.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) alerted lawmakers over the weekend that it would begin work on a damages assessment to assess the fallout from what the Justice Department said in June to the Trump’s legal team that the documents were not “properly handled or stored in an appropriate location.

Former intelligence officials describe a painstaking process that will involve officials assessing whether classified documents have been compromised and by whom in order to take action to prevent further damage.

“They will start from the most pessimistic assumption: that all or part of the classified documents could have been exposed to a sophisticated intelligence service of the adversary, and will examine the documents from the point of view of what can be gleaned on what the United States knows (or does not know) about a given subject,” wrote James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence during the Obama administration, in an email to The Hill.

Clapper also said the intelligence community will need to examine the “chain of custody” of the documents, which will involve assessing how they were handled since they were in the White House and by whom as well as who had access to the documents. documents and whether they have been photographed or copied.

The federal government has strict rules governing classified information, and the Justice Department has prosecuted individuals for unauthorized disclosures of the nation’s secrets.

A Search warrant unsealed earlier this month suggested that the search for Mar-a-Lago is linked to an investigation into possible violations of the Espionage Actin addition to other laws.

In an interview, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who served under Trump, recalled the instructions he received when he entered government about not publicly disclosing classified documents without proper certification and the ban on moving classified information outside government buildings or taking it away. with you when you leave the service.

“You don’t want to violate that requirement,” he said. “It can be dangerous if some of it isn’t managed the way it’s supposed to be.”

“Everyone knows that. I’m sure his legal team reminded the president of that,” Coats said.

Little is known about the documents themselves, but experts say leaked classification marks in the unsealed documents suggest the information could pose serious danger if it fell into the wrong hands.

“It tells me that, under the legal definition of top secret, someone in a position of authority and knowledge classified this material because they believed that disclosure of this information could reasonably cause exceptionally serious damage to security. national security — that’s the definition in the Executive Order of Top Secret material,” said Steven Cash, a Day Pitney national security attorney who served in the CIA.

A letter from Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to the chairs of the Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Intelligence Committee says the agency that oversees the nation’s 18 intelligence agencies will begin a ‘classification review’ of the documents , including an “assessment of the potential national security risk that would result from the disclosure of the relevant documents”.

It’s a remarkable effort made all the more extraordinary by unusual circumstances.

Such assessments usually follow the known leak of information. But in this case, it is not known who was able to access the documents.

Mar-a-Lago may have an exclusive membership list, but it’s not the restricted area the intelligence community is looking for to seal off classified documents, with members of the public on hand to play golf.

Report from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette recently noted that a woman being investigated by the FBI after posing as a wealthy socialite was spotted on the grounds of Mar-a-Lago, taking a photo with Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) on the course.

The Justice Department subpoenaed security footage of Mar-a-Lago in June. But the footage only dates back about 60 days, according to reports of The New York Times, and it’s unclear how extensive the footage is and whether it includes video of the room or rooms where the documents were stored.

Experts warn that the intelligence community may not be able to carry out a full damage assessment, which usually requires the production of a report detailing the information leaked, steps to mitigate the damage and how to prevent something from happening. similar does not happen again.

“The usefulness of doing a damage assessment here is overstated for two reasons. First, they won’t have a clear idea of ​​who accessed the records, which is essential for damage assessment. And then, second, most assessments are about on “lessons learned”: How did it happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again? There’s no right answer to that question here. You can’t just say we don’t We’re not going to share sensitive information with the president in the future if he’s someone like Trump. It’s not sustainable in our system of government,” said Brian Greer, a former CIA attorney.

But even as the ODNI undertakes a less formal review, it still has questions that need to be answered, primarily in an effort to protect many sources of information — including informants — who are now likely at risk.

“Apart from a formal damage assessment, the IC [intelligence community] will also consider short-term risk mitigation measures. Do they need to undertake some kind of immediate damage control effort? For example, if there was information in the documents that could identify a human source, do we need to extract the source? Should we exfiltrate them? Or do we just need to give them at least a warning so they can refrain from meeting their handlers for a little while? Do we need to cover our tracks? Greer said.

“And then the same thing with a monitoring platform. Should we consider dismantling it so that an adversary cannot discover it? he added.

The intelligence community has had access to part of the slice of documents stored at Trump’s home since May.

But the recovery earlier this month adds another batch of documents to the 184 already shared by the Justice Department.

Greer warns, however, that the damage is already done.

“They will err on the side of caution. In the absence of concrete information about who accessed the documents, they will have no choice but to assume a compromise and take proactive measures to protect our sources and collection capabilities,” he said. he declares.

“This step alone will harm national security,” he added.

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