Monday, August 15, 2022

A non-controversial question about the Documents Donald Trump had in his house

This is a non-partisan post. In the interest of disclosure I will divulge that I do not think private citizens should have top secret government documents in their house.

One phrase I kept hearing in the reporting was (I paraphrase and may have the number wrong)

                                  The FBI removed 15 boxes of documents

Documents? Like--- on paper? 

a) Are the documents also online someplace? Perhaps they intentionally are not so that they can't be hacked. 

b) Is having top secret documents only on paper safer than having them in electronic form? Normally I would think so. Donald Trump  having them is a very unusual case. 

c) Having to store all of those documents on paper would seem to have storage problems. I can imagine someone with NO bad purposes making copies and taking them home since they are tired of only being about to read them in a special room. 

d) A problem with having them ONLY on paper is that if an accident happens and they get destroyed there is no backup. Or is there? Are there copies somewhere? That leads to twice the storage problems. 

e) There is a tradeoff of security and convenience. Is having the documents only on paper is an extreme point on the tradeoff, but it may be the right one. It may depend on how important it is to keep the documents secret. 

f) I've heard (apocryphal?) stories about some top secret document also available in public though quite legal sources (e.g., a physics journal that discusses nuclear stuff).  Does the government make to much classified? If so then the problem arises of people not taking the classification seriously and getting careless. I doubt that is what happened here. 

g) The question I am most curious about is why did he take them? For most of his other actions his motivations are clear (e.g., he is pushing STOP THE STEAL since he wants to be president). But for this one its not clear. Unfortunately,  I doubt we'll ever find out. Maybe the answer is in some documents either on paper or electronic. 


  1. I used to work in industry and had a clearance. I changed jobs in 2006, so my info may be a little out of date. We did have classified computer systems in those days.

    There were three levels of DOD clearance: Confidential, Secret, Top Secret. Just because you had a clearance, didn't mean you could have access to a document: You also had to have a need-to-know, i.e., needed the info for the particular work you were doing.

    Each copy of a Secret or Top Secret document was assigned to a person. Often, there was more than one copy of a document, because many people would need the info for their work. There might also be digital copies, or some classified info might only be in digital form.

    The assigned person was responsible for locking the document up in their container when they weren't using it. The container was typically a file cabinet with a metal bar attached to the front to prevent the drawers from opening and secured with a hefty combination padlock.

    You couldn't take the documents home, or even leave them unlocked in your office when you went to the bathroom or the vending machine. If you wandered out of your office while thinking about something and left your container open or a document out, it would have to be reported to Security, and Security would investigate whether anyone had accessed it who shouldn't have. You could have someone else who had the appropriate clearance and need-to-know watch the documents while you went to the bathroom.

    You quickly learned to be very very careful. When I had my container unlocked, I'd put the bar across my office door. This way, if I wasn't thinking and tried to walk out my door, I'd run into the bar, which would remind me to lock up the documents. If I managed to get out of my office, I could be sure my container was locked.

    If you needed another copy of a document, Security would copy it and keep track of its existence and who it was assigned to.

    Confidential documents weren't tracked as closely. Someone had to have them, but the security people didn't keep track of who had them. This was annoying, since we still needed to be able to produce them when they did an inventory. So, we would keep track ourselves.

    Other government agencies ("spooks") had their own clearances, which were separate from the DOD ones.

    Sometimes we would need to deliver documents to another organization. I think they could be mailed, but we'd also sometimes hand deliver them. Typically, we'd be on an early-morning flight. One of us would be designated the carrier. Security would wrap up the documents. The carrier would have to stop by the office in the morning to get the package from their container, then hold onto it until they could hand it to the security department at the recipient's organization.

    As for Trump, he probably felt that rules didn't apply to him. I think there have been other cases of people who should know better taking classified documents home because they didn't want to bother following the rules and thought they could get away with it.

  2. I previously held a TS clearance.

    a) They are likely on computers airgapped from the internet, so technically not 'online'.

    b) Yeah, being connected to the internet is a huge risk. It's also much more work to secure a server with classified material than it is to physically secure physical documents.

    c) It is annoying to have to go to a special room, but taking them home for convenience is pretty much the textbook definition of recklessly endangering national security. An example I was given in securirty training was an employee who left government security work to work for a government security contractor and took home some classified material just to stay refreshed in between jobs. They broke up with their ex-girlfriend, who proceeded to vindictively report their possession of classified material. They served a few months in jail.

    d) They're also on protected servers.

    e) The designation of classification is precisely about the potential damage that could be done, so that informed decisions about the trade-offs can be made. Confidential means 'we cannot let this get out', top secret means 'we really really cannot let this get out.' The government lets fewer people have TS clearance.

    f) Something being released doesn't automatically declassify it. As a hilarious example, lots of top secret work was independently done on Hidden Markov Models. Later, corresponding work was done openly, but the ideas remained classified until someone actually bothered to do the paperwork to declassify it.
    Documents are auto-declassified after enough time has passed. When that time approaches, someone reviews it again to see if that time limit needs to be extended.

    g) Best guess is incompetence, followed by pathological lying and doubling down on refusal to admit any mistakes.

    1. Item c strikes me- Sounds like if nobody is above the law than Trump should spend a few months in jail for this- probably more.

    2. I read he had declassified the things he had at Mar-a-Lago. Did he? Should he have? Can we trust DOJ to tell us the truth some day?

    3. It's approximately as legitimate as the Michael Scott "I declare bankruptcy." Can he blanket declassify everything there? Yes. Did he? Definitely not. Classification history is meticulously tracked, and there's no chance it's not obvious to everyone involved what the relevant classification decisions have been. Should he have declassified everything? Absolutely not. A blanket decision to declassify stuff just because he brought it to Mar-a-Lago completely ignores the real question of potential national security damage.

    4. > if nobody is above the law then Trump should spend a few months in jail for this

      Not to mention that little attempt to overthrow the government.

  3. Regarding classified information on public sites...
    I was deeply disturbed to read a news story last year that some nuclear secrets are available on flash card websites (such as Clegg), apparently because technicians were using them to study for their exams.

    The story was broken by Bellingcat, but you can also find it covered by Wired and others.

    1. I am both deeply disturbed and deeply amused.