It’s not okay to possess national defense information or keep it at your residence as Trump has done. It’s also not in the least bit plausible that Trump declassified any of these documents.
As I was being introduced as a young private to classified information in 1973 at Fort Gordon (soon to be renamed Fort Eisenhower, home of the Signal Corps), the warnings we heard loud and clear were based on past cases of signal soldiers lured into cooperating with foreign intelligence. Maybe some of these stories were true, some not. But, it scared the hell out of me.
It would begin innocently enough. A troop who had access to classified information would be asked by a foreign-aligned actor to give him/her an unclassified maintenance manual, or some other innocuous government document. Then, this actor would ask for and receive information marked ‘For Official Use Only’ or FOUO, which is not a classification, but the troop thought it was okay. At that point, the soldier is trapped, or compromised, the story went. FOUO, while not a classification, is still in some cases national defense information. The Espionage Act spells out the prohibition of mishandling signal documents and this is why they were telling us signal folks this. The Act uses the term ‘Signal Book,’ to describe one of the many examples of national defense information we were not to take home or have in our personal possession. The language doesn’t say it has to be classified in order to violate the Act:
(d) whoever, lawfully or unlawfully having possession of, access to, control over, or being entrusted with any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blue print, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, willfully communicates or transmits or attempts to communicate or transmit the same and fails to deliver it on demand to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it; …etc.
This is one of the many paragraphs in the Act. It also spells out in another paragraph that anyone who assists in this, as in packs boxes, moves documents from one room to another – anyone in and around this stuff – could be prosecuted criminally for violating the provisions of the Act.
The spy in our story uses blackmail to acquire more and more sensitive documents by threatening to expose the troop. Eventually, the blackmailed soldier, trapped in his mind, would be offered money for classified documents because they were already in violation of criminal laws. There are many recent cases that used this Act as a basis for arrest and prosecution, including the Robert Hanssen case and Reality Winner.
I was scheduled to go to Korea, but ended up being drafted in early 1973 by an arm of the National Security Agency, the Army Security Agency (ASA), which needed a Morse Code specialist at a Field Station in Alaska. My clearance: Top Secret/SBI.
I’ve seen comments here that indicated some kos’ers had the same clearance that I had. Other commenters were skeptical that so many on this site may have had these clearances. Seems unlikely, unless you know that the National Security Agency, and others, used to use [maybe still do] a fairly large component of the Armed Forces to do their ‘spying.’ These would be: The Army Security Agency, the U.S. Air Force Security Service, and the Naval Security Group. Almost all of the job specialties in these security services required a Top Secret/SBI clearance and most of them related to either Sigint, Commint, or Elint specialties.
These service agencies, while being commanded or paid for by their parent service, reported operationally to the NSA. In 1975 or so, at least in the ASA’s example, many of these troops were sent to tactical units to support combat operations, but they still required Top Secret/SBI clearances.
In later years, I was the signal officer for a Military Intelligence battalion at Vint Hill Farms Station, Virginia. I made many trips to the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command in Arlington and the NSA at Ft. Meade. Our battalion was involved in testing new stuff and I was read in on some Black Budget projects and in later assignments, knew soldiers who ran into a little trouble here and there with the handling of classified information. Not personally, but in my proximity where I was involved in sending reports on the possible loss of this classified information up the chain.
In these cases, the owner of the classified information (the classification authority) would get the report and sometimes, depending on the circumstances, assume that the classified information was ‘lost’ or compromised. A damage assessment followed and many times a monetary cost to the loss of this information is published, or not. If it’s a black budget program, the public might not know the monetary damages done due to classification. A new spy satellite program, if compromised, could be a loss of billions of dollars, for instance. I don’t know what Trump possessed, but it’s likely the monetary damage done could be extraordinary. This is why Congress (except for Republicans) wants to know ‘how much’ and what’s the fix. Human Intelligence losses, the compromise of sources and methods, could lead to the loss of life, or the loss of access.
Presidents can declassify intelligence.
I can only point to one instance during my time in Alaska when the president declassified information, at least temporarily. This involved the nuclear capability of the Soviets regarding ICBMs. The SALT treaties called for certain limits on capability and the Soviets were required to be transparent about their nuclear enhancements. We detected an increased capability that they tried to hide, which was classified at the highest level, and Nixon and Kissinger made it public the next day. This was only done to point out the threat as it related to the treaty and to enhance our national security – the public needed to know and the Soviets needed to know that we knew. Note, the president didn’t officially go through the process of declassifying the entire intelligence, only that intelligence as it related to the specific goal of the unveiling. It can’t be for personal reasons, as Trump alludes in a very suspicious way.
Trump has been claiming that these classified documents belong to him. It’s a stupid argument. He’s reckless with classified information and should be prosecuted. He’s proven to be too mush of a risk too many times.