How can we expect another to keep our secret if we cannot keep it ourselves.
–François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims
What did Trump take?
What was in those classified documents?
What did the FBI find in the basement of Mar-a-Lago?
More importantly, what did Trump intend to do with that information?
I don't know.
I don't know what his intentions were, because there's no way to know what he was thinking. Revenge? Profit? Self-aggrandizement? Maybe he thought the information would exonerate him at some future point in history.
Maybe it was more like Gollum and the One Ring: Mine! My Precious!
I don't know.
Even if Trump tells you, most of the time he's about as coherent as a rat trapped in a hot box and his story changes from minute to minute as his feverish brain scampers madly about trying one excuse after another until he fastens onto a narrative that works for his fanatical dogmatic supporters.
I don't know.
I don't presume to know at this point.
Because to really understand what Trump's intentions were, you'd need to know exactly what classified documents he took.
You have to know what those documents were, what they say, what they pertain to, how they were obtained by Trump and what exactly they meant to him personally from moment to moment.
We're likely never going to know any of that ("We" being the general public).
Now, yes, there are reasonably credible reports that the documents involved both nuclear weapons material and SIGINT and if true, this is extremely troubling.
Nuclear weapons materials and SIGINT, this is some of the most sensitive material there is.
"Nuclear Weapons material" covers a lot of ground.
That information has its own special classification and is very, very closely guarded, and it could be anything from how the weapons work, to their estimated reliability, to how many we have, to where they're stored and deployed, to how they might be activated, to who they're aimed at.
We know Trump was obsessed with the US nuclear arsenal.
We know he often thought about using that vast power, whether against nature or our enemies. We don't have to guess, he said so, over and over.
We know he was particularly interested in the age of the weapons and the state of the arsenal's aging technology, again because he said so, over and over, and we know he very often attempted to make political hay with those issues and score points from his opponents.
So, perhaps that's what the documents pertain to.
But we will likely never know, either vaguely or for certain, because that information is some of the mostly closely held secrets this nation has and for damn good reason.
SIGINT, well, that's even more dangerous.
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) is highly, highly sensitive information. It's what the National Security Agency (NSA) does.
That's what I used to do for a living, for more than two decades.
SIGINT is the intercept and analysis of signals, usually electronic but not always. Most of the time those signals are some form of communication, between humans, between machines, between instruments, and any of myriad variations in between. But SIGINT may also be derived from non-communications signals such as radar or other sensors systems and perhaps other things I'm not going to talk about. It is a vast, vast field of intelligence, broken up into many, many sub-specialties, and it changes constantly following advances in the state of the art. It can involve the intercept of rudimentary decades old forms of communication such as morse code sent via simple on and off carrier wave, to communications so sophisticated that you could barely even comprehend the technology without enormous processing power to assist you. The modern US signals intelligence system is the end result of literally centuries of effort, sacrifice, and expense -- most of which you've never heard of and will likely never know. This source of intelligence, like other intelligence, can give our nation and our allies advantage not just in war, but also in diplomacy, in economics, in just about everything. And yes, it can most certainly be abused (and has been, Watergate being an infamous example and one of the few we can sort of talk about) which is why it is so very, very important to have systems in place to ensure control, protection, and release of that information.
I'm going to focus primarily on SIGINT for the rest of this essay, because that's my area of experience and expertise.
I'll leave the nuclear stuff to those who are experts in that area.
Now, while it's true that a president can declassify most anything SIGINT related, (it's my understanding he cannot declassify information regarding nuclear programs) it's extremely problematic for any president to do so in any sort of impulsive or cavalier fashion.
The fallout (yep, I did that on purpose) could be devastating to national security.
(Yes, really -- and I suspect you react the same way I do to the words "national security" used as justification for anything these days, given how abused that phrase is, but nevertheless here we are)
Certain information can only be gathered in a certain way.
Sometimes that information is the end result of decades of effort and billions of dollars and no matter what you think of the US government and the power and potential for abuse of these systems, compromise may very well result in destabilization of global political structures and could very well result in far, far worse things than you've already imagined -- from war to the complete collapse of economic and social systems.
The very fact that we have certain information, or that we even know that it might exist, reveals things to our adversaries.
That information might have cost lives to obtain, ours, theirs, innocent bystanders.
This is not hyperbole.
Revealing that information, even its existence if not what it actually says, might cost more lives, ours, theirs, innocent bystanders.
Again, this is not hyperbole.
For example: say some of those classified documents contain information that could have only been gotten by an agent in place. I.e. a spy.
The very fact that that information exists tells the enemy that source exists.
Look up Israeli spy Eli Cohen to see what happens then -- he may have saved his country, but it cost him his life.
The source doesn't have to be a spy.
And it probably isn't.
Sometimes information can only be obtained from a particular methodology.
For example, the intercept of electronic communications, i.e. SIGINT. And sometimes that intercept can only be achieved via a particular means.
For example: During WWII, British cryptologists at Bletchley Park led by a guy named Alan Turing broke German encryption early in the war, i.e. the infamous "Enigma" cipher, specifically the naval variant used by German Oberkommando der Marine to direct U-Boats in the Atlantic.
Breaking the Enigma cipher was the result of an enormous effort, one that literally cost many lives (directly and indirectly) and what would be billions of dollars today. In the current vernacular: a Moon Shot.
Being able to intercept and read those transmissions told the Allies exactly what enemy was doing. In detail.
But the intelligence that resulted from that incredible achievement couldn't be used.
Or could not be used directly.
Because unless there was another way the allies could have obtained it, one obvious to the Germans, use of that SIGINT to avoid or kill U-boats would immediately tell the German High Command their communications were being read in detail by the Allies.
If the Germans knew their military communications were compromised, they would have immediately stopped using that method and changed to something else we might not have been able to break in time.
And all of those lives, all of that money, all of that vast effort would be for nothing and many, many more allied Navy and Merchant Marine seaman in the Atlantic supply conveys would have died.
More than that, the Battle of the Atlantic might have gone another way.
Another example from that war is the Japanese JN-25 naval code, and you can read about that particular effort on NSA's own webpage here. (You can also visit the National Cryptologic Museum, outside of Fort Meade, just north of Washington D.C. and see the actual machines used to break that code, along with authentic Nazi Enigma machines, and other more modern equipment from the Cold War and later used by American codebreakers and information warfare specialists -- some of which I myself once worked with. And if you do visit the museum, stand for a moment in the lobby before the Memorial Wall, where the names of those who gave their lives to these efforts are listed. I knew some of those men and women personally. As I said, not hyperbole).
Now, yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt could have just said, fuck it, I'm declassifying this stuff. Hey, Adolf, I'm reading your mail, up yours, you Nazi goon, ha ha!
He could have done that and it would have been legal.
I don't know that he would have survived it, but he could have done it.
I hope you can see that there would have been grave consequences -- starting with the fact that both of those SIGINT efforts I mentioned as examples up above were first pioneered primarily by our allies and trusted to us in the strictest of confidence. Disclosure of that SIGINT would have not only done great damage to the United States, but also our many allies in that war and moreover would have put other nations into a position of not being able to trust us.
Today, SIGINT is vastly more complicated. Vastly more difficult. And even more sensitive. And the repercussions of its careless disclosure could have disastrous results.
So when a president, Trump, Biden, whoever, says, I'm just going to declassify this and make the information public, there's a process you have to go through.
Because if that information isn't sanitized, then very likely you are revealing far more than you intend.
Unless those documents are first examined by experts, by people who know what to look for, then you might not even be able to calculate what an adversary might learn from them -- meaning, there's no way for those sworn to defend this country to even begin to figure out if our own systems are compromised or what new threat from the enemy might result.
For example: If those documents do indeed contain SIGINT, then they are marked with specific classification markings, including codewords that designate the compartment of special intelligence they fall under.
Just because you have a clearance, doesn't mean you get to see everything.
SIGINT is something called Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence, SCI.
It's maintained inside something called a Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility, a SCIF.
Ah, you've head that term before, haven't you? SCIF, that's where Congressman Matt Gaetz chose to make TikTok videos and post to the internet -- and you have no idea how utterly insane that is. If I had done that, I would have gone to jail.
That aside, the key to that classification is the word "compartmented."
Just because you're cleared to see the information in one compartment, doesn't mean you are allowed to see information in another. You have to be read into each compartment, you have to understand the requirements of each compartment individually and what they cover, and you have to have a need to know that information.
Those compartments are designated by codewords.
Those codewords are on the documents.
So, even if you're not cleared but you somehow find out the the codeword, say you're a reporter for example, and you do enough digging, eventually you can figure out with a reasonable degree of certainty exactly what those documents might pertain to even if you don't know exactly what they say.
In other words, you call tell what country, program, or target that intel might pertain to.
And the very fact that information exists in the first place, the very fact that compartment exists, and that Trump was so interested in it that he swiped it, tells you something -- might in point of fact tell our enemies something, and give them systems, facilities, and specific people to target for more information.
So, there has to be a process.
The president can't just wave his hand and say these documents are now declassified!
Well, okay, he can, but there are problems:
“I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!”
-- President Trump, via tweet, Oct 2020
That's Trump, waving his tiny hand.
I have authorized the total declassification of any and all documents pertaining to my political enemies!
Any and all documents.
Any and all.
Except, you never saw any of that, did you?
You never saw any declassified documents pertaining to Trump's alleged "greatest political crime in history."
And you really think you would. If it was the greatest political crime in history, I mean.
Trump said he "authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents" pertaining to what he called "the Russia hoax"
So where are those documents?
Where? Still classified. Still stored safely in their respective SCIFs. That's where.
Because that disclosure would have likely been highly classified SIGINT, either phone records, texts, emails, something, from US citizens or SIGINT intercepts of our adversaries -- and this might perhaps even be the very documents recently recovered from Mar-a-Lago. And he supposedly had information that would put Hillary Clinton and everyone he hated in prison. Or at least he thought he did, though it's unlikely he actually saw anything concrete himself -- thus the caveat "any & all documents." He figured if he just shotgunned it out there, somebody, the "analysts" at Fox News and OAN would find something, anything (and, of course, ignore any information that didn't fit the narrative).
So, where are those documents?
Trump could declassify anything, right? That's what his rabid supporters are telling us right now, aren't they? He had a right to do whatever he wanted and he wanted Hillary Clinton in jail and he declassified any and all documents pertaining to the greatest crime in history.
He gave the order in public, via tweet.
You saw it. You can still see it, if you look in the right database.
So, where are those documents?
Yeah, funny thing. When the public and News agencies attempted to obtain these "declassified documents" via the Freedom of Information Act, Trump's very own Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said:
“The president indicated to me that his statements on Twitter were not self-executing declassification orders and do not require the declassification or release of any particular documents.”
In other words, Trump's order couldn't be carried out.
Not without grave damage to National Security.
Any and all? What does that even mean? Where do you start? Where do you end? What systems and methodologies does that order encompass? What other information does that impact? What agencies and personnel might that compromise? What is the cost, in dollars, in people, in effort? Who's responsible? Any and all? Who decides what's relevant? What's the timeline?
The ramifications and reverberations are endless and unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Trump might have damaged his political enemies, but somebody somewhere finally got it through his thick empty skull that the damage to Trump himself would have been far, far worse because he would be seen by Americans, including those in his own party and the entire intelligence community, as the guy who completely blew up National Security.
Folks, classification doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Intelligence doesn't exist in a vacuum.
There is never a piece of information that is its own compartment, classified unto itself without any connection to any other piece of information. We live in an age of vast, complex, interwoven information and that information can be, and often is, manipulated by those who would do us harm -- foreign AND domestic.
You ever wonder why all those big trucks with the militia stickers have Medium Frequency whip antennas in the back? Because they're convinced the government will monitor or shut down phone service, and so they have CB radios and codes to communicate. And they are not wrong.
They are openly preparing to be domestic enemies.
Some already are.
Some have already openly declared war on the United States, in the name of their leader, Donald Trump. One was shot dead by the police yesterday.
What if those documents contain SIGINT collection on those people Trump said he loved?
Enemies, foreign and domestic.
You might not be thinking about this stuff, but they certainly are.
And you don't have to look much beyond January 6th, 2021, to see it.
What did Trump take?
I don't know.
You don't know.
The media doesn't know.
The FBI probably does, but they're not going to tell you. Merrick Garland isn't going to tell you. Joe Biden isn't going to tell you. They can't.
And Donald Trump sure isn't going to tell you (he might make something up, but you'll never see any proof of its veracity)
There are hints, rumors, speculation, but we don't really know and we likely never will.
And thus we likely will never know exactly why he took those documents or what he intended to do with that information. More importantly, at this point, we don't know the depth of the breach. We don't know who has seen these documents. We don't know the extent of the damage to national security.
And there is damage to national security.
The very fact that Trump was able to take classified documents likely regarding some of our nation's mostly closely held secrets and stash them in a golf course is proof of that.
Right now, intelligence agencies, years, decades of effort, hundreds, thousands of lives, billions upon billions of dollars might be at risk because of it.
We just don't know.
Those who guard this nation, the ones who keep the wheels turning and the lights on and who every day stand against the fall of night and who may thus one day end up on a forgotten memorial wall in some dusty museum no one ever visits, the ones Trump and his supporters call the Deep State, the Swamp, they are right now in damage control mode, just trying to figure out what's been compromised -- and the worst part is they may never be able to fully assess the damage. Meaning we will have to operate in an assumed compromised state until systems can be changed, upgraded, or shut down and other sources of information developed.
And that means those out there on the pointy end of the stick, the ones Trump called suckers and losers, are in even more danger.
What did Trump take?
I don't know. But the very fact that he could walk out of the White House with classified material shows you that we as a nation need much better oversight and control of this process.
Trump's own supporters often talk about "our way of life."
And that's ironic, because the very foundation of our way of life is that the president is not a king and he can't just wave his hand and make it so.
This material does not belong to him, it belongs to us.
The president is not above the law.
I’m talking too freely, but you know. The change of stories. The lack of preparation. The lying. Holy shit.
-- Maryanne Trump Barry, retired federal judge, Donald Trump's sister, regarding Donald Trump's presidency