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Experts criticize White House use of sensitive computer system to store Trump transcripts

·National Security and Investigations Reporter
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White House officials’ decision to move records of the president’s calls with foreign officials to a highly sensitive and protected computer system at the National Security Council — one of the revelations contained in a whistleblower complaint made public Thursday — was highly unusual and likely inappropriate, according to experts familiar with the normal procedures for handling such information.

In the complaint made to the intelligence community’s inspector general on Aug. 12, the anonymous official says the transcript of President Trump’s July 25 phone call with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was moved to a highly classified computer system “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”

Following House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s decision Sept. 13 to openly subpoena top spy chief Joseph Maguire to gain access to the whistleblower’s complaint, details concerning Trump’s conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart have trickled out into the press, ultimately erupting into an impeachment inquiry focused on whether the president pressured Zelensky to help him against political rival Joe Biden.

Rep. Schiff, D-Calif., published the details of the complaint Thursday morning, just minutes before opening a contentious hearing over acting Director of National Intelligence Maguire’s role in handling the complaint since it landed on his desk in late August.

According to national security experts and former National Security Council officials, including those who served under Trump, the decision to relocate the call transcripts — whose specific contents are not typically highly sensitive — is extremely abnormal and not in line with how the system is meant to be used.

President Donald Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Getty Images)
President Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Getty Images)

The secret database “is used to retain and preserve the most sensitive compartmented intelligence matters. That would include covert action programs — in my time there that would have included info on the RDI program, for example,” said Larry Pfeiffer, director of George Mason University’s Michael V. Hayden Center, referring to the CIA’s controversial rendition and interrogation program.

“It may also hold diplomatically sensitive information — such as the information surrounding the very sensitive negotiations and conversations involving Oman in the very early stages of negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran,” said Pfeiffer, who ran the White House situation room for a number of years under President Barack Obama. Pfeiffer also served in the intelligence community in a number of different roles, including as former CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden’s chief of staff and as a signals intelligence analyst at the NSA.

“It would never be used to protect or ‘lock down’ politically sensitive material or to protect the president or senior officials from embarrassment,” he continued. “I’m appalled at this clear abuse of the president’s power to manage and protect our most sensitive secrets.”

Samantha Vinograd, a former official at the National Security Council under Obama, also publicly criticized the use of the highly classified system. Transcripts would likely be moved there only if they were so sensitive they contained “codeword” information — information so sensitive that only officials who have been cleared at the highest level and for that specific code word have access to it, she explained Thursday morning in a series of tweets.

“That separate system is not intended to hide evidence of a crime,” she wrote in a tweet.

A former NSC official who served under Trump and asked not to be named to speak freely said the decision to store the transcripts in such a way would have been the likely result of either an extreme effort to prevent leaks or, more worryingly, an attempt to “bury” the details of the call.

Following a 2012 incident where unclassified White House systems were hacked, most of the daily workflow at the National Security Council is restricted to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, pronounced “Jaywicks,” a sensitive network run out of the Pentagon. Several hundred people have access to that system at the National Security Council, the former official explained. The number of people who can see even parts of the highly classified system, let alone transfer documents there, is a tiny fraction of that number.

Additionally, the official noted, the decision to mark each paragraph of the call, even the greetings and congratulations to President Zelensky, as “secret” and “NOFORN” (“not to be shared with foreign partners”) is “ridiculous.”

The former official recalled a “bloodletting” after previous transcripts of presidential calls were leaked to the press, an incident that may have scared the president’s minders into overclassifying the document. “Placing it into that system ... wow, you don’t trust anybody,” the official said.

“The question is, is this now a practice because they had concerns about leaks or was it so bad that they wanted it buried?” the official continued.

“This whole thing is a f***ing s***show.”

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