Trump and Classified Material at Mar-a-Lago
I normally try to avoid much of the political warfare going on in the US nowadays in this blog, but the recent FBI seizure of classified material held by Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago is extremely hard to ignore for a retired intelligence professional. I would first caution everyone to calm down, or better said, stop jumping to conclusions. Some of the speculation I have observed over the last few days borders on recklessness. Let me deal with some of the more prevalent ideas circulating.
I will avoid discussing the issue of whether Trump could declassify or not, but clearly, if he had followed procedures this would be less of an issue. This situation is partly the result of a disorganized and incompetent administration. There are reasons for procedures. The idea that he had standing orders that anything he took home was automatically declassified is crap. Too many administration officials have stated that no such orders were issued, not to mention such orders would not be valid. As to those who claim Trump did issue such orders, these people would swear on a Bible that the burning bush appeared in the oval office and God said, "Donald, my son, you are above the law and not responsible for anything you do." They have no credibility.
That having been said, people are jumping to conclusions that have little basis in fact. Many pundits are making a link between the current situation and a news story written back during the Trump Administration stating that Trump had asked for the name of US Intelligence agents, or a variation of that idea. In turn, a CIA memo, as reported by The New York Times some time after the request for names, outlined the compromise of numerous CIA sources. These two events, coupled with the discovery of Humint Control System (HCS) material at Mar-a-Lago led many to speculate that Trump had compromised those sources. However, there is no connection between these events based on the information we have.
Further, Trump did not ask for the names of CIA sources, he asked for the names of senior US intelligence officials, that is US members of the intelligence community. Read the articles carefully. The idea behind this request was to identify as many senior intelligence officials that Trump could fire and replace with unqualified individuals whose primary qualification was loyalty to Trump. That, in itself, is a dangerous idea, and would severely damage US intelligence and politicize the intelligence community to a level never seen before. But it was not about identifying US sources. The CIA report on the compromise of sources laid the blame squarely on.....the CIA itself. The compromises were apparently due to poor counterintelligence practices and underestimating the opposition. This is not the first time it has happened, and not likely the last.
The HCS material requires a little more detail. HCS is a classification designed to protect the information provided by human sources, and those sources themselves. Now, HCS is slapped on a large number of classified documents that vary in degrees of sensitivity. It can include raw intelligence reports from field stations all the way to analytical products that contain intelligence from a variety of methods, including technical and overt. Clearly the former is highly sensitive since in the hands of a competent security service such reporting might help them identify CIA sources. While at the analytical end there can be numerous sources for the analysis, making it hard to pinpoint a source.
However, in all cases, the CIA does not reveal the identities of its sources in any reports. The CIA goes to great lengths to protect those sources. I won't go into details, but just having the HCS classification does not immediately lead to a compromise of sources. I am not trying to downplay the severity of what Trump did by taking highly classified material and storing them at Mar-a-Lago. There is very limited security there, given that it is a country club where all manner of people come and go. A few years ago they arrested a person there] suspected of working for Chinese intelligence. Recently, they have identified a woman with a fake identity and potential ties to Russian intelligence. Numerous, competent intelligence services view Mar-a-Lago as a major intelligence target. This is a serious breach of national security and depending on the documents themselves could compromise a variety of US programs and capabilities. Classification or declassification aside, this is a serious breach.
That being said, we do not know the level of compromise without access to the documents themselves. The Intelligence community will determine that after a careful review. Wild speculation helps no one and if some of these "conclusions" turn out to be false it will only add to the conflict, one side claiming that the raid was political B.S., part of a conspiracy, and the other side claiming that Trump gets off free because of some conspiracy.
One important question that hasn't been adequately addressed, and maybe never will be, is why. Why did Trump take those documents? For a man who doesn't read and does not respect the intelligence community or the information it produces, why did he take them? It’s not about writing a book. Even if he were thinking of writing a book, classified information, such as nuclear weapons-related information, could not be included. He could have easily had the National Archives hold the material until he needed it. We need to understand why he did what he did. What were his intentions? Maybe then, we can understand the true severity of the situation…or something like that!