While the general public may express outrage about Donald Trump absconding with boxes of classified documents and storing them in his personal residence, those of us who have undergone the rigorous, invasive process of vetting and investigation required to access TS/SCI-level intelligence (known as the top secret/sensitive compartmented information) are especially sickened by this violation of our nation’s trust. Even Republicans are having a hard time finding ways to justify this breach.
The failure to safeguard classified documents is a crime of a different sort. Far from being a victimless crime, this puts actual people in danger.
For the safety of American personnel and our nation overall, it is imperative that all classified information be handled and stored according to strict guidelines and only be accessed by authorized people. It should only be shown to those who have a legitimate “need to know.” We have rules and policies in place so that this highly sensitive information does not fall into the hands of those who wish to cause harm to the United States, our allies, and our citizens. While a sitting president has the authority to declassify some materials, the decision to declassify is not as unilateral as the former president has claimed and requires coordination between agencies and departments. More significantly, a former president has no authority to declassify materials once they have left office. More significantly, a former president has no “need” to access any of these materials, let alone store them in an unsecured location. The potential danger to our country and its security as a result of this breach cannot be understated.
It is also important to understand that even if the former president had the power to unilaterally declassify these documents — as veterans who worked in these spaces we fully disagree with Trump on his assertion that he can — the actual laws he has run afoul do not mention of whether or not a document is classified or declassified. The issue is whether or not these documents pose a national threat if they are mishandled and fall into the wrong hands. With regard to this, the Espionage Act and the Atomic Energy Act are clear: it is a crime to “conceal or remove” materials related to national defense that are “closely held” (i.e., not public information).
VIEW FROM TWO VETERANS
Below are views from two veterans who expressed grave concerns about Trump’s actions.
Lene Mees de Tricht, a US Navy and US Coast Guard veteran
As a naval intelligence analyst, I was trusted by my country to be a steward of highly classified information. I diligently honored my nation’s trust for ten years. I was extremely scrupulous in my security practices because that is what was expected. In my time as an intelligence analyst, I was given access to information that would be extremely detrimental to national security if made public. The risk is not in the public knowing it, but in that our adversaries would also know it, and can use that to undermine our national security. Similarly, much of how we defend our nation is so tightly controlled so that our adversaries do not know how we do our jobs. That is why the former president’s breach of trust is inexcusable. If I had done what he is alleged to have done, I would be in prison until I draw my last breath because it would have been a betrayal of my country to our enemies.
Our president is our commander-in-chief. It is important that the president be someone we can trust with information about how we conduct military operations. How can we ever trust a man who put our military members — my brothers, sisters, siblings, and friends — in unnecessary danger?
Carrie Frail, an Air Force veteran and linguist who served from 1999–2004
When I joined the Air Force and applied for my security clearance I was only 18. Even though I had no credit history or criminal record and a short work history, my investigation still took over a year to complete. These investigations are incredibly thorough, even including in-person interviews with neighbors, friends, coworkers, and teachers by federal agents. My first assignment was at the National Security Agency. Before I could even enter the building I had to pass a counterintelligence polygraph test. These are the steps that I, an airman in her late teens, had to undergo to be able to access the types of classified information that Donald Trump packed into boxes and took to an unsecure location at his golf resort.
I once had an accidental security violation when I forgot to lock the cabinet above my desk containing classified papers at the end of the day. Even within a SCIF [stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility and is a secure place where sensitive information can be viewed] inside of the National Security Agency, which itself was alarmed and protected by both cypher lock and badge access, classified materials had to be locked up if unattended. The following morning, I was told I was lucky not to have received a separate violation for each of the thousands of pieces of paper marked classified that had been unsecured. Even a few accidental violations could cause one to lose their clearance, job, and possibly freedom depending on the severity of the breach. Intentionally mishandling or taking home any materials would have likely gotten me a life sentence in a federal prison at the least. There cannot be double standards when it comes to issues of national security. No one is above the law.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CRIME
Trump has flagrantly and frequently shown he has no great respect for the law, and no interest in upholding it. The Office of the President morphed into an ersatz crown under Trump, where he believed himself more or less immune to the law. There is the mechanism of impeachment, but without conviction in the Senate — an impossibility given its current composition — it did not carry any real consequences for him.
However, the failure to safeguard classified documents is a crime of a different sort. Far from being a victimless crime, this puts actual people in danger.
The current framework for classifying and declassifying sensitive information owned by the Department of Defense is DoD Manual 5200.01 Vol. 3, with substantially similar instructions for other civilian agencies and organizations that handle classified information. In Enclosure 2.2, under the heading “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR SAFEGUARDING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL,” the instruction reads: “Everyone who works with classified information is personally responsible for taking proper precautions to ensure that unauthorized persons do not gain access to classified information. Everyone granted access to classified information is personally responsible for protecting the classified information they know, possess, or control and for complying with the pre-publication security review processes specified in DoDD 5230.09 (Reference (k))…”
Section 2.3, titled “ACCESS TO CLASSIFIED INFORMATION,” continues: “no person may have access to classified information unless that person has a security clearance in accordance with DoD 5200.2-R (Reference (l)) and has signed a Standard Form (SF) 312, ‘Classified Information Non-Disclosure Agreement’ (NDA), and access is essential to the accomplishment of a lawful and authorized Government function (i.e., has a need to know).” These two short paragraphs are the foundation of our nation’s defense information security apparatus and inform all other protocols in place.
When applying for a clearance, one fills out an SF-86 (as is often joked among those having had filled one out, it’s so named for the number of pages in the packet) application for a background check, in which every facet of your life is listed out and itemized for investigators to pick through with a fine-toothed comb. Only after finding nothing that is potentially compromising — and given thorough instructions, including a warning that nothing you learn will likely even be considered for declassification in your lifetime — are you given your NDA or non-disclosure agreement to sign, which binds you under the law to not disclose any information you receive. And even then, by design, you’re limited in the information you may receive. Because even with the most thorough protocols in place, occasionally, you do get people who are willing to breach the national trust. Thus, by limiting the access of the individual, you limit the potential damage one person could do.
The reason why Trump’s breach is so catastrophic is because the president, ostensibly, does not have that limitation. There’s no information that is so classified that the president can’t see it. They have access to everything and with it, have the potential to cause unlimited harm to our national security.
The information security apparatus in this country is extensive, expensive, and byzantine exactly because the risks of classified information becoming public are too great to bear. How many people could be put in harm’s way or ultimately die for the former president’s greed and selfishness?
Lene Mees de Tricht is a ten-year veteran of both the US Navy and US Coast Guard. She is the National Membership Manager at Common Defense and lives in New York City.
Carrie Frail is an Air Force veteran and mother of two adult children. She received a Joint Service Achievement Medal and Joint Service Commendation Medal for her intelligence work and reporting on North Korean chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. After her service, she was employed with a defense contractor as a geospatial analyst and alternate Facility Security Officer. She is the Program Associate for the Veterans Organizing Institute and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
Jacob Thomas is an Air Force veteran who served honorably during and after the discriminatory DADT ban on LGBTQ+ service members as a network engineer and later as a sexual assault victim’s advocate. He received the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal for work involved in nuclear deterrence operations and has written on public policy, LGBTQ+ issues, and nuclear foreign policy. He is the Communications Director for Common Defense.