WASHINGTON — Boxes of documents former President Donald Trump allegedly warehoused at his Mar-a-Lago resort and residence in Florida included national security intelligence derived from some of the country’s most sensitive sources, a situation experts said could prove seriously damaging.

The information squirreled away at the so-called winter White House — in a bathroom and shower and bedroom, on a stage, in a storage room, and in office space — featured data from the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, according to federal court records made public earlier this month.

The former develops, launches and operates spy satellites. The latter analyzes overhead imagery, maps the Earth for military purposes and handles Project Maven, launched by the Pentagon in 2017 to detect targets of interest in footage captured by uncrewed systems.

Details were also attributed to the Energy Department, a steward of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile through its National Nuclear Security Administration, and the State Department’s intelligence and research bureau, responsible for providing data to shape diplomacy.

The NRO and NGA both referred C4ISRNET inquiries to the Justice Department. A spokesperson there said the department was “limited to the information contained in the indictment.” The Energy Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Papers please

The files Trump is accused of mishandling and conspiring to keep contained insights concerning nuclear weapons, the military capabilities of other countries, activities in foreign lands and potential stateside vulnerabilities.

Pages were marked secret and top secret as well as with more-arcane designations such as “NOFORN” and “ORCON,” “REL TO USA, FVEY,” “TK” and “FISA,” according to a list in the 49-page indictment.

The markings strictly define who can see what, and indicate from where the knowledge came: no foreign distribution; no dissemination outside a certain department; available to properly credentialed officials within the Five Eyes alliance, involving Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.; sourced from satellite observation, or so-called talent keyhole; and tied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Definitions for top secret, secret and confidential classifications are seen here, part of the 49-page indictment against former President Donald Trump.

While it is difficult to discern exactly how precious information is based on labels alone, given the prevalence of over-classification, “not every document that is classified is unnecessarily classified,” Elizabeth Goitein, the senior director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told C4ISRNET. “Trump had so many of these documents — and some of them were the sort of highest levels of classification — there’s certainly a very, very good chance that there was some extremely sensitive information in there.”

As president, Trump had at his fingertips the most exquisite information gathered by the U.S. government and its agents. Access dries up after leaving office. However, the feds allege, “Trump caused his boxes, containing hundreds of classified documents, to be transported from the White House to the Mar-a-Lago Club” where in at least one instance containers tipped over, spilling their contents across the floor.

Snowden, Manning, Teixeira

Any unauthorized disclosure of such information, the indictment states, could jeopardize U.S. security, international relationships and covert sources in the field.

“The exposure of classified information in and of itself can cause damage to the national security,” Bradley Moss, a national security attorney, told C4ISRNET. “The fact these materials not only were classified as high as top secret/SCI, but concerned issues such as war plans and details on nuclear weaponry, indicates they were incredibly sensitive and were never meant to be shared widely within the cleared community, let alone with non-cleared individuals.”

The circumstance is unprecedented, Moss added, “in the sense that it was done by a former president and that the individual failed to return the records when asked to do so. Leakers of classified information such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning exposed highly sensitive details of U.S. government operations, as did Jack Teixeira, allegedly.”

Snowden was a former American contractor who made public the existence of global surveillance dragnets. The U.S. government deemed him a traitor. He was later granted Russian citizenship. Manning, once an Army analyst, was convicted in 2013 after she fed WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of records pertaining to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then-President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, is accused of leaking via Discord a trove of guarded reports, including some tied to the Russia-Ukraine war.

“I think when people talk about leaks, they’re talking about leaks to the media, or they’re talking about leaks to a foreign adversary. He’s not accused of that,” the Brennan Center’s Goitein said of Trump. “However, plenty of people have been charged and imprisoned for willfully retaining documents they were not entitled to retain.”

What’s to come

Trump this week pleaded not guilty to 37 felony counts during an arraignment in Miami. The former president — who is running for reelection in 2024, and who has doubled down on conspiracy theories — described the charges against him as the product of a “most evil and heinous abuse of power.”

“This is called election interference in yet another attempt to rig and steal a presidential election,” Trump told supporters in New Jersey on Tuesday. “More importantly, it’s a political persecution, like something straight out of a fascist or communist nation.”

The 2020 presidential election wasn’t stolen, and there is no evidence of tampering or widespread voter fraud.

Special counsel Jack Smith, who brought the charges against Trump, said he is a seeking a speedy trial and one “consistent with the public interest and the rights of the accused.” Speedy, though, could mean months or even years, potentially clashing with a bustling presidential campaign schedule.

Trump’s likely course of action, Moss said, is to attempt to “cripple, if not outright throw out” the case during the upcoming pre-trial motion phase. A jury would not be allowed to view the documents in question and would have to rely on their public descriptions to determine significance.

“They will raise objections regarding use of privileged testimony by Mr. Corcoran, seek to tarnish the government’s case with allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and seek to argue about selective prosecution for political motivations,” Moss told C4ISRNET. Evan Corcoran joined Trump’s legal team in early 2022. “These arguments are not likely to succeed, but they represent his best hope of beating back this indictment.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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