Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
How much danger has former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents created?
Since news broke last month that FBI agents found 11 sets of classified materials during a search of Trump’s Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, much of the attention has focused on how much legal trouble he faces.
But the latest reporting from the Washington Post, that Trump kept super-secret information about another country’s nuclear capacity highlights just how much risk Trump’s mishandling of classified documents has potentially created, not just for the United States but also for other countries – and possibly for the rest of the world.
Nuclear programs are the most sensitive of all weapons systems. Whether the information is about US friends or foes, Trump’s disregard for the safety of nuclear secrets shows the most reckless disregard for American and global security.
We don’t know if anyone else has seen the documents the FBI seized from Mar-a-Lago, but by keeping nuclear secrets at his Florida resort, and thus potentially making it easier for others to access that information, he risked undercutting US security regarding the most powerful weapons systems the world has ever known.
Also unknown is to which country’s nuclear program the document referred. If the information concerns US allies, it could endanger their security as well. And if it refers to US foes, it shows America’s cards, giving US enemies useful information.
As court filings have revealed, Trump resisted months of requests and later demands that he follow the law and transfer documents that should have gone to the National Archives. The most dramatic moment came on August 8, when FBI agents emerged from Mar-a-Lago carrying boxes of files. Among the material the FBI allegedly found, the Post reports, was “a document describing a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities.”
Additionally, the Post says, the FBI recovered documents describing, “top-secret U.S. operations,” so sensitive that the label “Top Secret” doesn’t begin to describe the degree of care normally used to protect them. Some of it can only be seen in a SCIF, a sensitive compartmented information facility, especially designed to safeguard the information. And, the absolute most sensitive of all, the special-access programs can only be viewed by the President of the United States and a handful of top military and intelligence people. Trump has made a preposterous claim that he had a standing order to declassify anything in his possession, even though there is no evidence he did that.
We’d already known that Trump kept more than 300 documents with classified markings not only in his possession but in a resort frequented by many visitors and members, one where foreign intruders have been arrested and others have tried to infiltrate. It’s only reasonable to believe that any moderately capable foreign intelligence service could have tried to gain access to Mar-a-Lago.
If the Post report, citing unnamed people familiar with the Mar-a-Lago search, proves accurate, the nuclear aspect raises the risk immeasurably. When the Post reported a month ago that that the FBI was looking for information on nuclear weapons, Trump ridiculed the claim, calling it a “Hoax” and suggesting the FBI may have planted evidence to make him look guilty. Now, it seems, Trump’s cries of foul play are again unfounded.
Trump had returned 15 boxes of documents in January, and then 38 more in June under subpoena. But it was the latest cache, the one in August, when the FBI found material in a storage closet, Trump’s residence and his office at Mar-a-Lago, where the most sensitive documents we have heard about – those dealing with nuclear weapons – came to light.
Former intelligence and defense officials sound deeply troubled. Mike Esper, who served as Trump’s defense secretary, said his principal concern is about the wrong people discovering how the United States obtains intelligence. “You don’t want your adversaries to know what you know,” or how you know it, he told CNN this week. The information in those documents could lead US foes to America’s sources of intelligence.
We don’t know which country’s nuclear capabilities the document refers to. Only nine countries are known to possess nuclear weapons. Some, like France, the UK, Israel and India, are US allies. Others, such as China, Pakistan, Russia and North Korea have relations ranging from adversarial to cold. Other countries, such as Iran, have nuclear programs but not a known nuclear arsenal.
Among US friends, such as Israel, the story is making headlines– not surprisingly given that Iran’s leaders openly say they wish to wipe Israel off the map. Knowledge about a country’s defense capabilities like Israel’s makes it more vulnerable to attack. If it knows more about how Israel can defend itself, Iran can better hone its strategy to bypass Israel’s defenses.
At the moment, we have no idea what has happened with the documents since Trump took them from the White House over 18 months ago. We don’t know who, if anyone, has seen them. In fact, we don’t know why Trump kept them, and why he resisted returning them.
Clearly, this is not a “storage” issue, as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida dismissively characterized it.
Trump’s attorney, Christopher Kise, complained about the leaking information, arguing that it causes “damage to public confidence in the integrity of the system.” But the integrity that is coming under sharpest question is that of Trump and his defenders.
Kise added that, “the Court has provided a sensible path forward.” In reality, when Judge Aileen Cannon ruled this week in favor of Trump’s request to appoint a special master to review 13,000 records seized from Mar-a-Lago, she may have just exacerbated the danger.
One of many who have been scathing of the ruling, former attorney general under Trump, William Barr, said on Fox News that Cannon’s decision was “deeply flawed,” adding he thought the government should appeal. But time is of the essence, and the ruling could already be worsening a situation that looks as if it had been written for a Hollywood drama.
Cannon ordered the FBI to stop using the documents in its investigation and wait for the special master to review them. We don’t know who will be chosen, but it certainly won’t be someone tasked with the job of finding out where the documents have been and who has seen them over the past year and a half. That’s a job for the FBI.
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The Director of National Intelligence is trying to assess how much damage this has done, but it’s not certain if the DNI is looking to see who else might have carelessly touched them, and it doesn’t have the papers in hand.
Who has seen the documents, and why did Trump keep them? Those are the two biggest questions looming over the case from a purely apolitical standpoint. What happens to Trump is also important, but what damage he may have caused to US or global security is an urgent matter, whose potential consequences are almost unfathomable.