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Donald Trump Should Not Be Trusted With Classified Information
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Donald Trump Should Not Be Trusted With Classified Information

Poor handling of intel is a threat to our nation and too our allies, and he has been reckless with secrets in the past.

Hello and happy Thursday! 

Today I want to chat about President Trump’s handling of classified materials and a new whistleblower report claiming Twitter is super insecure and crawling with foreign spies. 

About Those Classified Documents 

I’ve held off on writing about the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago because the issue immediately became a political “shirts and skins” game and because much of what was “known” was little more than conjecture. The facts have firmed up over the last few weeks, however, and I’ve had some time to think about what I have to say. So here are seven observations in the context of the former president’s handling of classified information. 

First, we need to remember why we have classified information in the first place. There are people, groups, and nations who want to hurt us. They want to steal our wealth, undermine our system of government, and enslave or kill our family, friends, and neighbors. If you think that sounds alarmist, you’re wrong. Certainly, this does not describe most of the people in the world, but it accurately applies to enough people that our government must have a way of keeping state secrets away from those who would use those secrets to hurt us. Any action that weakens this system also threatens to weaken our individual and national security.  

Second, the modern American system of information classification isn’t that old. The categories of “confidential,” “secret,” and “top secret” come from an executive order issued by Harry Truman in 1951. (If you want to know more about these categories, read my previous newsletter, “Getting Smart on Intelligence.”) This same document laid out how these types of information were to be handled and secured. Before this, during World War II, we had the Security Advisory Board (SAB) within the Office of War Information. The SAB was created in 1943 because there were no standardized practices for handling government secrets and because federal employees were frequently reading and leaving sensitive information in public spaces, unsecured buildings, and even streetcars. Even more nuts is that during this time there wasn’t even a clear law against disclosing sensitive information. While the Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal to expose information “related to the national defense,” Congress—to push back on what it saw as overreach by the Wilson administration (cue ominous music)—stripped the bill of its provisions defining what constituted information “related to the national defense” or how someone would be authorized to have it. The point of this history lesson is simply to demonstrate that matters of classified material have always been poorly defined and even more poorly practiced in our country; but it is also true that the executive branch—and especially the president—has always been the primary driver behind the securing of this information, because the president and his or her government are given primary responsibility for securing the nation and its citizens. 

Third, because the president has primacy in national security, he or she gets “the good stuff.” Not every piece of classified information is of equal value—that’s why we have different classifications. But it can be reliably said that the information given to the president is routinely some of the most sensitive and important information we have. We don’t bother the president with reporting on what the leader of Kreplachistan had for breakfast, but we ensure the president understands Putin’s invasion plans for Ukraine and what would happen if the United States and China got into a shooting war with each other. In the context of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, then, you can bet your bottom dollar that any of the classified information that was given to, and subsequently kept by, President Trump is extremely sensitive and could cause serious damage if disclosed.  

Fourth, it’s not simply about the number of classified documents. Press reporting now says that more than 300 classified documents (at least 700 pages) have been recovered from Trump’s Florida compound. That, by itself, is mind-blowing. But things get even more insane when you realize that most of these documents are likely “all-source intelligence” documents, consisting of dozens or even hundreds of secrets. Take for example the president’s daily brief or PDB— we know from John Bolton that Trump often kept these for himself—this document is a daily digest of what the intelligence community thinks the president needs to know, synthesizing tons of information from around the world. I’ve written a few of these PDB articles and below I’ve drafted an analytic assessment from a fictional PDB to demonstrate just how much information these documents can have: 

We assess with high confidence that North Korea’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) now has a range exceeding 13,000km, allowing it to strike anywhere in the continental United States. President Kim Jong-un previously confided to his Minister of Defense, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-gil, that achieving this capability is a prerequisite for an invasion of South Korea, but we do not assess an invasion is more likely in the near- to mid-term. Technical and human intelligence also indicate that North Korea’s ICBM development is decisively enabled by the Chinese government and that President Xi Jinping views this aid as an effective way to encumber U.S. diplomatic and military resources. 

Ok, so what can be gleaned from this COMPLETELY MADE-UP intelligence report? Well, we learn (1) the U.S. has detailed technical knowledge of North Korea’s ICBMs; (2) we have a regional missile defense system capable of identifying, tracking, and destroying an ICBM within 30 seconds; (3) we have a reliable human intelligence source with “close access” inside the illicit military supply chain between North Korea and China; (4) the U.S. can listen in on calls between the heads of government in Beijing and Pyongyang; (5) Washington has North Korea’s military plans for invading South Korea; and (6) the North Korean Minister of Defense is a human intelligence asset for the United States, codenamed OPSPITFIRE. All of this in just four paragraphs. Now think about how much information could be exposed in the hundreds of pages that were being stored in President Trump’s unlocked basement. 

But it’s not just our secrets that are at stake. 

Fifth, a huge part of intelligence comes from our partners and allies around the world and the exposure of this information could jeopardize these intelligence-sharing agreements. Arrangements like the Five Eyes partnership between the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom provide critical information and capabilities whose loss would devastate our ability to protect our nation and our allies. These partnerships are predicated on each country’s ability to protect the sources and methods of every other country, but any nation that loses the others’ confidence will soon find itself isolated and cut off from vital intelligence. And, if we’re honest, our friends have good reason to worry. 

Sixth, President Trump built a clear track record of recklessly revealing classified information. Most famously, he revealed secrets to members of the Russian government during an Oval Office visit in 2017. The information that was shared reportedly came from a close ally in the Middle East who had “access to the inner workings of the Islamic State,” according to the Washington Post. Later that same year Trump told Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte the positions of two nuclear submarines off the coast of North Korea: a huge secret that Duterte had no “need to know.” And again in 2017, Trump told Xi Jinping about a U.S. missile strike in Syria over a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake” at Mar-a-Lago. In 2018, Trump posted video on Twitter of several U.S. Navy SEALS while on a trip to Al Asad Airbase in Iraq, revealing the commandos’ unblurred faces and location. Then, in 2019, he tweeted a classified image of an Iranian missile launch site that amateur satellite trackers quickly determined came from a USA-224 spy satellite. Of course, Trump isn’t the only U.S. president to accidentally or deliberately leak classified information; but the frequency and sensitivity of his disclosures put him in his own category.  

Finally, considering all the above, Trump should not be trusted with classified information and the Republican Party should reject him as its nominee on national security grounds. The president, members of Congress, and some other elected officials do not go through a traditional background investigation process for security clearances. The president, specifically, gets access to everything simply by nature of the position. By tradition, former presidents will retain access to some classified information after leaving office and will be “read-in” on any issues on which they are asked to engage by subsequent administrations.  

Having said that, the former president’s reckless retention, storage, and refusal to turn over classified documents after leaving the White House is more than sufficient reason for President Biden to revoke Trump’s access to any classified information and, if necessary, to reclassify any documents Trump declassified apart from a formal, interagency review process. The rationale for this action becomes even more obvious in the context of Trump’s broader history of being cavalier with secrets.  

Some will reject this out of hand and will attribute my critique to “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” political naivete, or just plain stupidity. But my recommendation that this man never again be allowed anywhere near state secrets—or the Oval Office—is based on a pure, hard-nosed assessment of the situation.  

We are in a time where a nuclear-armed Russia is caught in a quagmire of its own making in Ukraine and where an increasingly isolated Vladimir Putin is likely to become more volatile and desperate. At the same time Beijing is growing more belligerent toward tTaiwan and a growing chorus of experts suggests war between the United States and China within five to 10 years is a very real possibility. And these are just two of the national security challenges the next president will face. Put aside all the “left” and “right” politics for a second and ask yourself, does President Trump have the intellect and the self-control to navigate the United States through these complex and difficult problems? Do you really believe he will surround himself with, and listen to, the expertise needed in such times? And finally, are you willing to bet your life, and the life of your family, friends, and neighbors on it? 

Keep Your Eyes on This Story 

Twitter’s former head of security, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, has filed a whistleblower complaint against his former employer, accusing the social media company of “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in securing its data and of allowing foreign governments to influence the platform and even to place spies within the company. The 83-page complaint was sent to Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last month and is already getting a lot of policymaker attention. 

“Take a tech platform that collects massive amounts of user data, combine it with what appears to be an incredibly weak security infrastructure and infuse it with foreign state actors with an agenda, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster,” Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement to the Washington Post. “The claims I’ve received from a Twitter whistleblower raise serious national security concerns as well as privacy issues, and they must be investigated further.” 

Zatko went to the SEC and FTC because he believes Twitter executives misled federal regulators about its efforts and its progress on a range of security and privacy issues, saying the company assumed a posture of “deliberate ignorance” on the number of fake or spam accounts. If true, this would likely put the company in violation of an 11-year-old FTC settlement. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, who fired Zatko in January, sent a memo to company staff saying, “We are reviewing the redacted claims that have been published but what we have seen so far is a false narrative that is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies.” 

Here’s what I’m thinking: “Mudge” is a hacker’s hacker with a rockstar résumé, and Twitter has a big problem. I’m not going to list his full CV, but you should know that this guy pioneered the “buffer overflow” hacking technique (a staple of modern hacking), advised the NSA on technical collection and information security strategies, was a project manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and helped to build Google’s Advanced Technology & Projects group. He and his L0pht (pronounced “loft”) hacking buddies also testified before Congress in 1998 in one of the first cybersecurity hearings ever (see the awesome Twitter thread below). 

 

I don’t think this is sour grapes. I think Twitter’s many public failures indicate that “Mudge” is right on target and that Twitter is in a world of hurt after ignoring the wrong dude. I’m happy to let this story develop, but I wanted you to have some context on the whistleblower himself as things unfold. 


That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week! 

Klon Kitchen is a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.