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What Trump Mar-a-Lago photo shows vs. what we know about handling classified documents

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/31/2022 Josh Meyer, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – The Justice Department's midnight filing Tuesday revealed  stunning disclosures of alleged mishandling of top secret government documents and possible obstruction by former President Donald Trump or his legal team

Especially significant – and intriguing – national security experts say, is the photo DOJ included of some of those documents spread out on a carpet at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida. It showed that at least six of the documents had specific classification markings like “TOP SECRET/SCI” or “SECRET/SCI” emblazoned on their cover sheets. That's a clear indication they should be kept and viewed only in a highly-secure federal government facility known as a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.

Here's a  look at what the documents are, what their markings mean – and what they say about the potential legal peril Trump faces for having them in his possession.

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DOJ's obstruction evidence: DOJ mapped out strong obstruction evidence against Trump, aides in filing, experts say

What new information about the Trump classified documents did the Justice Department unveil?

  • Justice Department officials told a federal judge in a court filing late Tuesday that Trump's request to appoint a third-party special master to oversee a review of documents seized from Mar-a-Lago would impede the government's investigation, which has already uncovered evidence of obstruction in the handling of classified records.
  • The detailed filing presented much more government evidence of that alleged lack of cooperation and obstruction by Trump or his lawyers, including not handing over all classified documents as promised and stating that all of the relevant documents being sought were confined to a Mar-a-Lago storage room when they were not.
  • Prosecutors refuted claims that the former president had cooperated with authorities in the months leading to the FBI's unprecedented Aug. 8 search at the Palm Beach complex, which includes a members-only club. "The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation," according to the DOJ filing, which was submitted just minutes before a midnight deadline.
  • In aresponse posted on his Truth Social site, Trump said, "Terrible the way the FBI, during the Raid of Mar-a-Lago, threw documents haphazardly all over the floor (perhaps pretending it was me that did it!), and then started taking pictures of them for the public to see. Thought they wanted them kept Secret? Lucky I Declassified!"

Scribbled notes, classified materials and golf carts: Here's how the millions of White House documents and artifacts should be archived

What the Trump Mar-a-Lago photo shows

Above all, the photo confirms what Justice Department and FBI officials have said all along, which is that Trump still was in possession of classified documents long after his lawyers insisted that he was not.

Many of them shown in the photo also have special markings that render moot Trump's claim that he declassified all of the documents in question before they came to Mar-a-Lago, because some are required to be protected through other federal laws and policies.

In fact, even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ lawyers conducting the review "required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents,” according to the new DOJ filing.

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“If that was me, I wouldn't have the luxury of sitting at a golf resort somewhere talking to lawyers, having lawyers file motions. I'd be doing all that from a jail cell somewhere,” according to Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year U.S. intelligence official who was the senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden. “And it wouldn't have been two years after I left office or retired; it would have been almost from the moment they discovered that maybe I still had some documents sitting around in my basement.”

  • Some of the documents pictured in the photo were so highly classified that they required being kept not only in a federal government authorized SCIF,  but in a heavy-duty safe within it that only people specifically authorized to look at them can access.  “That stuff is restricted to just a handful of people. We're talking low double digits probably,” said Pfeiffer, who left government in 2013 and now directs the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University.
  • Some of the "most alarming" documents shown in the photo, Pfeiffer said, are those with specific markings indicating that they involved America's most sensitive human intelligence collection efforts. Some were marked "HCS-P," short for Humint Control System, meaning they reference those on-the-ground agents that the CIA or other U.S. intelligence agencies cultivate around the world to help them understand what is going on inside hostile governments, spy agencies, militaries and corporate boardrooms.
  • To access such documents requires an extraordinary level of "special access" clearance and special handling procedures, said Javed Ali, a senior National Security Council official in the Trump administration, who also spent 16 years in top national security positions at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and FBI. "There's a reason why they're putting that label on there. It's very sensitive," Ali said. "Any compromise of that source could not only shut off the intelligence stream that that source is providing but put a human being at risk for their life. It doesn't get more serious than that." 
  • Other documents in the photo have "SI" markings, which refer to signals – or communications – intelligence, which usually comes from eavesdropping on email and phone communications. And those with “TK” refer to “talent keyhole” programs that use high-powered satellites to gather intelligence.

The DOJ Mar-a-Lago photo annotated: The DOJ Mar-a-Lago photo annotated: What can we see in the rare photo? What does it mean?

Former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 26 in Palm Beach, Florida. © Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post-USA TODAY Network Former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 26 in Palm Beach, Florida.

'A classified document screams at you'

What also makes the photo so significant, some former U.S. national security officials said, is that it shows to the public how there are bright yellow and red cover sheets on secret and top-secret documents that make it impossible to miss that the underlying material is classified at some level or another.

"A classified document screams at you, 'Do not look at this document unless you have the appropriate clearance in place.' And that's a good reminder for those who don't have a security clearance and who may not understand the process," said Brandon Van Grack, a former senior Justice Department lawyer and prosecutor who has investigated many classified document breaches. 

"The whole point is, this wasn't just documents that are classified. These are documents that are clearly marked classified, and that has a significance," especially to FBI and Justice Department officials investigating Trump, said Van Grack.

By posting the photo, Van Grack said, the Justice Department "is communicating clearly to the judge and the public that this search wasn't just justified, it was necessary."

Read the affidavit: Read the (redacted) affidavit that supported the search of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort

Undercutting Trump's argument

None of the documents in the photo show any evidence of being formally declassified. That undercuts Trump's claim that it was OK for him to have them at Mar a Lago because he declassified them before they left a secure government facility.

According to Van Grack, such documents normally undergo a formal declassification process that is spelled out on their cover sheet. That can include blacking out the markings identifying the document as "top secret" or some other classification, and at times even explaining why – and when – the information has been declassified.

That is another public confirmation, he said, that the documents should have been kept in an impenetrably secure location, safe not only from potential intruders at Mar-a-Lago but even Trump's own associates – including those that may have had lower levels of security clearance. 

What documents can be declassified?: Trump claims Mar-a-Lago documents were 'declassified.' Why experts reject that argument.

How classified documents are supposed to be protected

As president, Trump would have gotten access to classified documents in a variety of ways, but especially through his daily intelligence briefing.

Every morning, one or more senior intelligence officials would go to wherever he was and brief Trump or certain aides with appropriate clearances on current threats and global developments. They would also bring with them a wealth of relevant information and intelligence – in document or digital form – that is gleaned from a variety of sources.

Usually the briefers will retrieve all of the binders at the end of the briefing and return the documents to the intelligence agency that originated them or some other secure location where they are kept, said Pfeiffer.

“If the president had material in his daily brief and said, 'Hey, yeah, I want to hold on to this and just read this a little bit more,’ nobody's going to say, ‘Oh no, Mr. President, you can’t do that,’” said Pfeiffer.

But the intelligence briefers would make specific note of what documents were left behind, “and when they finished with the documents, they are usually brought to the Situation Room to be held until the briefers come to retrieve them or couriers come to retrieve them,” said Pfeiffer, who ran the Situation Room from 2011 to 2013 during the Obama administration. “I was always under the impression that the intel community would make note if there was anything missing, and they would then go back and say, ‘Where are those pages?’”

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Trump would also have been given classified information through his own national security advisor and their staff on the National Security Council, including documents like those pictured in the DOJ photo with White House letterhead.

And while each administration is different, the Trump administration would have had specific people at the NSC and within the White House administrative staff to make sure all of those documents were catalogued, kept under lock and key and ultimately sent to the National Archives and Records Administration for eventual access by the public.

 “There is also a staff secretary that oversees the movement of papers and materials to the president overall,” Pfeiffer said. “So I do, frankly, wonder what went wrong” during the Trump administration that resulted in so many classified documents ending up at Mar-a-Lago.

“When I was there, those staffs were meticulous in tracking down documents and making sure that documents that moved were returned as appropriate. And they would keep records of all the documents,” Pfeiffer said. “And at the end of administration, if any documents hadn't been returned, they would turn over heaven and earth to try to make sure they got them all back before shipping them off to the National Archives.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What Trump Mar-a-Lago photo shows vs. what we know about handling classified documents

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