Opinion: The biggest potential danger from the Hur report is one no one’s talking about

Editor’s Note: Gary Ross is director of intelligence studies at Texas A&M University’s Bush School, Washington, DC. Ross previously conducted and supervised criminal, counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations and operations for the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Department of Homeland Security, and provided oversight for the intelligence community’s national unauthorized disclosure program. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Bush School. View more opinion on CNN.

Over the past year, we’ve seen an alarming wave of current or former senior government officials who reportedly failed to properly safeguard classified information. This includes classified documents recovered from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in August 2022 and additional classified material discovered and surrendered from the homes of President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence between December 2022 and January 2023.

Gary Ross - Courtesy Gary Ross
Gary Ross - Courtesy Gary Ross

The attention of the media and public has been almost wholly focused on two aspects of these incidents: their potential criminal and political liability. On the legal front, although the decision has been made to not pursue criminal charges against Biden or Pence, Trump has been indicted by a federal grand jury for the unlawful retention of national defense information and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Legal pundits and political strategists continue to debate the relative appropriateness and equitability of these decisions by the Justice Department. Trump has denied all wrongdoing.

Questions also persist concerning the political ramifications for Biden and Trump, the two expected major-party candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Since the publication of special counsel Robert Hur’s decision not to indict Biden, the focus has been on the potential damage to the sitting president, and that’s sure to be a major focus of Tuesday’s hearing with Hur. While his report concluded that criminal prosecution for the willful retention of classified documents was not warranted, several sections appear to raise questions concerning the president’s mental acuity — in particular, the report’s reference to the president as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” has garnered significant attention.

But as impactful as the legal and political considerations may be, a third critical area must also be addressed: the potential ramifications these incidents can have on US national security.

The US designates classified information as Confidential, Secret and Top Secret based on the damage that could reasonably be expected to occur as a result of disclosure of this information (“damage,” “serious damage” or “exceptionally grave damage”). All government employees granted a security clearance receive training on the protocols for storing classified material. When classified information fails to be safeguarded, including retaining documents in a home office or garage such as Biden did or a bathroom such as Trump did, national security can be jeopardized in several ways.

The clearest threat is that our adversaries can more easily gain access to classified material and the sensitive information it contains. It is no secret that foreign intelligence services target the United States to gather information concerning our defense and intelligence capabilities and leadership intentions. Documents recovered from both Biden and Trump are reported to have included material classified at the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information level, requiring storage in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which has special safeguards to prevent unauthorized access. A private home (or an estate connected to a private resort), even one where a current or former senior government official resides, is almost certainly less secure than a SCIF. This increases the likelihood that an adversary would succeed in accessing any classified documents stored at these locations.

This photo from page 126 of the report shows Biden's Delaware garage on December 21, 2022. - Department of Justice
This photo from page 126 of the report shows Biden's Delaware garage on December 21, 2022. - Department of Justice

If our adversaries recognize a pattern of senior officials improperly storing documents, they may alter their tactics to target these less-secure locations. Rather than attempting to conduct a clandestine operation to surreptitiously enter an embassy or other federal building, for instance, they could simply look to burglarize a private residence.

Beyond the actual intelligence contained in the reports, one of the greatest concerns is for the sensitive sources and methods used to obtain the information. These include things such as phone taps, computer intrusions and imagery from satellites or drones as well as the most sensitive source: recruited human assets. If an adversary’s counterintelligence service can identify the manner in which the US acquired specific information, that service can take steps to prevent vulnerability to more collection in the future. This could mean removing a listening device, concealing their assets from overhead imagery or, in a worst-case scenario, capturing and executing a source recruited by US intelligence.

This photo from the US Justice Department shows boxes of classified documents stored in a bathroom and shower in the Mar-a-Lago Club. - US Department of Justice
This photo from the US Justice Department shows boxes of classified documents stored in a bathroom and shower in the Mar-a-Lago Club. - US Department of Justice

In addition to the potential threat to existing sources, individuals who might otherwise consider risking their lives by cooperating with the US could also have second thoughts. If a potential asset believes the US is unable to safeguard their identities, it is less likely that they would be willing to work with an agency such as the CIA. Human sources provide unique access and insights into our adversaries’ intentions. Decreasing their number by calling into question our ability to protect their identities would deliver a serious self-inflicted blow to our national security.

Our adversaries are not the only ones observing how well we safeguard sensitive information. The US intelligence community regularly shares information with allied intelligence agencies, such as Britain’s MI6, Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service and others in the “Five Eyes” alliance. In return, these partners provide the US with information to help promote joint national interests, such as counterterrorism. If our allies believe that our senior officials cannot properly safeguard their intelligence, they may reconsider their level of cooperation. In the current multithreat landscape, the US simply can’t afford to go it alone.

Finally, US intelligence community employees, bound by the same oath to safeguard classified information, may come to question the seriousness of their obligation. If the storage of sensitive documents outside government-approved areas becomes normalized, and there is a perception that the repercussions are nominal, the risk of additional incidents will increase. This would only serve to further weaken national security. While I’m confident that the overwhelming majority of patriotic men and women in the US intelligence community take their obligation to protect classified information seriously, even the smallest decline in vigilance could have severe repercussions.

Whether negligent or intentional, inadvertent or criminal, we should expect more from our senior-most officials.

This story has been updated to reflect news developments.

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