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Trump’s Document Stash Put American Lives at Risk
The Mar-a-Lago documents included information on ‘Special Access Programs,’ the release of which could endanger American military and intelligence personnel.
THE CLASSIFIEDS DOCUMENTS THAT Donald Trump is charged with mishandling were marked “SECRET” or “TOP SECRET,” the highest classification we afford our nation’s secrets. By definition, the uncontrolled release of that information could be expected to cause “serious” or “exceptionally grave” damage (respectively) to our national security. As bad as that sounds, it gets worse: According to the indictment against Trump, eight of the TOP SECRET documents may have had information about or derived from so-called Special Access Programs (SAPs). The sensitivity of these documents was so great that prosecutors were obliged to redact even the codewords on the documents. The implication is that even publicly acknowledging the codenames of these projects, without discussing their operations at all, was deemed a great security risk.
These included documents about the nuclear capabilities of another country, military attacks by a foreign country, the military capabilities of a foreign country, the timeline and details of an attack in a foreign country, the regional military activity of a foreign country, the military activity of foreign countries and the United States, and military activity in a foreign country.
And as sensitive as the subjects of those documents are, what was really put at risk by our former commander-in-chief were the nation’s most sensitive activities and information derived from them.
Broadly defined in Executive Order 13526, which governs classification, an SAP is “a program established for a specific class of classified information that imposes safeguarding and access requirements exceeding those normally required for information at the same classification level.” These are programs or activities so sensitive they require enhanced safeguards and the strictest access requirements. Even those who go through the arduous and sometimes years-long process of obtaining a Top Secret clearance often require additional security adjudication for to gain access to SAPs. Details of SAPs are usually limited to the bare minimum number of people with a “need to know.” Some are divided into several compartments with individuals given access only to those compartments requiring their expertise or knowledge; only a select few—a dozen or so, maybe fewer—might have access to the totality of the SAP.
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The original SAPs, referred to historically as “black programs,” often focused on sensitive acquisition projects in the Department of Defense, such as the development of stealth fighter aircraft or spaceborne collection platforms. Today there are three categories of SAPs. Acquisition SAPs protect the “research, development, testing, modification, and evaluation or procurement” of new systems—state-of-the-art weapons systems and platforms, for example. This information is so highly safeguarded because it can describe not only what our most advanced technologies can do, but also potentially what they can’t do. The risks to national security, if America’s adversaries and enemies were to learn how to evade reconnaissance satellites, find our nuclear submarines in the ocean depths, or shoot our planes out of the sky, would be immense. Even in the best of circumstances, the resources now being spent to determine if these programs were compromised are resources lost to new efforts or activities.
Intelligence SAPs protect the “planning and execution of especially sensitive intelligence or counterintelligence units or operations”—the real spooky stuff involving leading-edge collection capabilities, human sources, or our effort to counter foreign spies. Advanced collection capabilities afford America a decided advantage in information. Compromise can silence vast streams of information and cost the taxpayer millions of dollars. When information about human sources leaks, it often compromises the source, and can lead to the source being killed as well, per public reporting. Every time a source is compromised—especially when they’re killed—it becomes that much harder to recruit new human sources, who can give insight into foreign plans and intentions that other sources can’t match. When information about human sources is left strewn around a bathroom, it endangers the lives of those who choose to give the United States other countries’ secrets, and it makes it that much more difficult for the United States to maintain an information advantage over our adversaries. Compromising our most sensitive counterintelligence efforts provides a free pass to the spy agencies of our adversaries to collect information on our own plans, intentions, and capabilities.
Lastly, operational and support SAPs protect the “planning, execution, and support” of sensitive military activities—think: the Osama bin Laden raid. That raid was hugely successful both as a military operation and for intelligence collection because it remained so secret until its completion. If word had leaked out beforehand, it could have been an embarrassing debacle—and possibly deadly for the operators who carried it out.
The vast majority of SAPs are authorized by the secretary of defense, but the secretary of state, secretary of homeland security, secretary of energy, the attorney general, and the director of national intelligence can also authorize them.
SAPs have three protection levels—acknowledged, unacknowledged, and waived. Acknowledged SAPs are ones whose existence is openly recognized and whose purpose may be identified publicly. Details of acknowledged SAPs remain classified and access protected by designated codewords. Presidential travel activities are often cited as examples—everyone knows the president travels, and often it’s public long in advance that the president will be in a certain place at a certain time: a U.N. meeting, a party convention, a State of the Union address, etc. What’s secret are the details of how the president will get to and from the events and how the Secret Service will protect him. Funding for acknowledged SAPs is generally unclassified.
Unacknowledged SAPs are those whose existence and purpose require greater protection. All information is classified, and funding is classified, unacknowledged, and not directly linked to the program. Under extremely limited circumstances, the normal reporting requirements of an unacknowledged SAP can be “waived” by the Secretary of Defense. Congressional oversight in those cases would be limited to oral notifications to the chair, ranking members, and staff directors of the respective appropriations and armed services committees.
To recap, of the 31 documents former President Trump is being charged with inappropriately storing at his resort hotel, eight may have contained information about or derived from our government’s most sensitive activities. In the wrong hands, the exposure of that information could risk the lives of U.S. and allied military and intelligence personnel, and foreign intelligence sources and their families—not to mention American civilians.
It may be months or even years before a jury determines whether the former president is guilty. The president, his lawyers, and his political supporters will make legal arguments about the Espionage Act, the Atomic Energy Act, and the constitutional powers and privileges of the presidency. Some will be stronger than others in a purely legal sense. But ultimately they are independent of the more important consideration: Trump endangered our national security, putting us all at greater risk, and must be held accountable.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the CIA or any other U.S. government agency. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information and does not imply U.S. government authentication or endorsement of the author’s views.