In the movies, whenever high-ranking officials are provided with sensitive and classified intelligence information, the exchange is often dramatized into a pseudo-solemn and ritualistic event. Locked briefcases are handcuffed to trench-coated couriers and the documents are provided only in the most secure government spaces. The idea that the intelligence reports might then be casually left in a closet in a private residence seems far-fetched and straight out of a satire. As we are learning recently, however, in the cases of both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the reality can be sloppy and haphazard.
In both recent cases, unspecified intelligence documents were discovered in poorly secured locations, seemingly unaccounted for until discovered by investigators. In the case of former President Trump, the documents in question were then secreted away from federal agents attempting to recover them. In President Biden’s case, one set of documents was found in a garage. Leaving the politics aside, this whole series of episodes underscores a pressing need for an examination of how our national security establishment handles its most sensitive documents.
Beyond general classification levels and some broad subject areas, we don’t know for certain the exact nature of the documents recovered in either case.
Intelligence documents always range in sensitivity of both collection method and the nature of the information itself. They can be broadly disseminated and relatively lightly classified “finished” intelligence reports, authored by analysts; or, they can be highly classified, hard copy disseminated human or technical “raw” intelligence reports. The latter are derived from the most sensitive of sources and methods and are transmitted in “eyes only” or “restricted handling” channels and accessed by only a relatively few authorized personnel.
How the different types of intelligence products are handled once they reach the “consumers” — policymakers and other government officials — also depends on the level of classification and the controls imposed by the collecting agency (CIA, NSA, DIA, etc). Those controls and classification levels are, again, based on both the sensitivity of the collection method and of the information itself.
There are people within the U.S. intelligence establishment who spend many of their working days deciding on classification levels and controls for pieces of information. They weigh source sensitivity and all the other factors that come into play. This author was one of those officers for a time during various assignments at the CIA. Imagine for yourself two or three CIA officers deliberating over a piece of particularly sensitive information that was acquired from a source, whose protection is of paramount concern as they are highly placed in a country like North Korea or Iran.
The officers must figure out how to provide that information to the people who need to know it, all while protecting the source. Those kinds of conversations are had, and decisions are made, almost daily at the CIA. To then see some of those same documents end up in a closet or garage at some politician’s house is galling, to say the least. It is also highly distressing for the sources of the information, who themselves are most at risk when intelligence is compromised.
What these particular episodes should spur within the intelligence community is a rethink about how intelligence reports are written and disseminated. When writing intelligence reports, source protection is always of paramount importance, and must be even more so in the wake of these recent events. In the case of dissemination, or to whom intelligence reports are given, I would surmise that these episodes will result in a tightening of the distribution protocols. Not that any tightening would have helped in these two cases, however, as the president and the vice president remain at the tippy top of the intelligence consumer hierarchy. They will always get the most sensitive and controlled products, as they should. But how those products are written might change as a result of these episodes. The source has to be better protected if documents are going to end up in a closet protected only by a cheap commercially available lock.
These recent episodes of wayward intelligence documents should also force politicians who receive intelligence products to assess their own behavior when it comes to handling sensitive documents. Intelligence agencies, after all, are not the ultimate end-users of the products they produce. That would be policy- and decision-makers as they are the ones who put to use the information acquired by the intelligence collectors. That should always be the case.
However, if those decision-makers want to keep the information flowing at the same level of sensitivity and quality, then they need to tighten up. They need to realize that the information and documents they are receiving resulted from someone placing their life in danger to steal those secrets. Or, they should remember that the information on that page came from a multibillion-dollar technical collection platform that was painstakingly and covertly put in place in a long operation. Politicians have to do better when it comes to safeguarding the nation’s intelligence.
Feature Image: Indiana Guardsmen intelligence analysts train at Hulman Field Indiana National Guard Base, Ind., Oct. 22, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Luke R Sturm)
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