As deputy director of Central Intelligence, Grid Special Contributor John McLaughlin was responsible for some of the country’s most closely guarded secrets. In his home, he had what amounted to a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF), which required the phone lines to be encrypted. An armed guard was always at the house — and even had a separate room. These were the minimum requirements for bringing highly sensitive material outside of a government facility.
At Mar-a-Lago, the Department of Justice found sensitive documents that would normally be protected behind many layers of security. A new DOJ filing included a photo of classified documents, blazoned with bright colors and labels, many reading “TOP SECRET,” spread out across a carpet. Those files amounted to only a small portion of what the FBI found during its search of Donald Trump’s Florida residence.
We asked McLaughlin for his reaction to the latest filing by the Department of Justice in the investigation into Trump’s handling of classified materials.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
G: In the long list of classification markings mentioned in the new DOJ filing, did any stand out to you as particularly troubling?
John McLaughlin: It’s important to say, of course, that we are not seeing the actual content of the documents, which would affect the degree of concern we should have. That said, the markings — such as Top Secret SI, Top Secret HCS, Top Secret/SAP — indicate that they contain sensitive information collected by intercepted communications and/or human agents (spies), or that they contain information that only a tightly restricted and small number of officials are cleared to see (SAP, Special Access Programs).
“Special Access Programs” refers to intelligence usually collected by means that are sensitive and fragile, meaning they were very hard to acquire. Maybe it’s an agent who took months or years to recruit and works in a situation where he or she is highly exposed and is taking enormous risks. Or it could be signals intelligence — intercepted communications acquired by some stealthy means — that, were it to be discovered, would be instantly lost. In my day at least, these were typically numbered documents intended for a short and specific list of people. Special Access Program material would be taken around by courier outside agencies and returned with signatures of those who had seen them.
Some of the markings suggest they also contain information collected by satellite imagery systems, and some (FRD) may suggest also the inclusion of material related to nuclear programs. Many of the documents are also not supposed to be shared with foreigners (NOFORN).
G: Why should the average American care that documents of this type would be held at a former president’s home?
JM: Normally, documents with such markings would be kept in what we call a SCIF, a sensitive compartmented intelligence facility. It would have a secure vault door, and access would be restricted to those with security clearances to see them and does not allow them to leave the facility without some physical security. Those in charge of a SCIF keep records of who sees the documents. That’s how they are handled on Capitol Hill, for example, by the Senate and House intelligence committees.
G: Could some of these documents have been declassified prior to the search warrant?
JM: There is a formal process for declassifying documents, even by the president. It typically involves a request to the originating agency for a judgment on the consequences of declassification — whether it would risk jeopardizing the source, for example — and whether any deletions are required to avoid that. The latest DOJ statement indicates none of that took place.
G: What would the consequences be if a high-level CIA employee were to take home documents with these markings?
JM: First, everyone knows they are not supposed to do that. There’s no wiggle room. The reason is because the typical employee home has no security and in all likelihood no one there is cleared for these kinds of documents. For someone caught doing this, the consequences could range, depending on circumstances, from disciplinary action to firing. And if this was clearly to commit espionage, we’re talking prosecution. When I was deputy director at CIA, I could take certain of these documents home because I was always accompanied by armed guards and had a SCIF in my home at that time.
G: The CIA last year sent out a warning that many human sources had been imprisoned or killed in recent years. Is there a concern, given that the DOJ claims it found “human source material,” that some of this material, stored inadequately, could harm the U.S.’s confidential sources abroad?
JM: Again, we don’t know the specific content of the documents. Nor do I know who, if anyone, had access to these at Mar-a-Lago. But here’s the worry: Human source reporting — what spies have told us — does not identify the source by name, but it typically includes a description of the source’s level of access and reliability. This, combined with the nature of the information reported, can give foreign intelligence services clues about who in their midst is spying for us. So, if this material were accessed by anyone looking for that kind of information, that would be a big concern.
G: What else should we be worried about other than just breaking the rules?
JM: Obviously, someone needs to learn who had access to the areas where the most sensitive documents were kept. I assume the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines will look at this as part of the “damage assessment” her office is doing.
G: There have been several suspicious incidents at Mar-a-Lago over the years. Could foreign intelligence agencies have attempted to access Mar-a-Lago if they knew Trump was keeping sensitive information there?
JM: We don’t know whether they knew, of course, but if they did, a natural thing to do would be to try and figure out, how do we gain access to that? Who do we have to have working for us? Who could gain access to that? Would it be the cleaning people, would it be maintenance people who could do that for us? If we had the opportunity in some similar situation with unsecured foreign intelligence material, we’d be scratching our heads trying to figure out how we get in there.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.