According to the search warrant and inventory released by the Department of Justice yesterday, the FBI removed 11 sets of classified documents from Donald Trump’s Florida resort on Monday. Far from the political attack Trumpists alleged was taking place, it appears the FBI was acting to prevent documents with the most sensitive information imaginable from falling into the wrong hands and facilitating an attack on our national security:
The documents, unsealed after the Justice Department sought their public disclosure amid relentless attacks by Trump and his GOP allies, underscore the extraordinary national security threat that federal investigators believed the missing documents presented. The concern grew so acute that Attorney General Merrick Garland approved the unprecedented search of Trump’s estate last week [Betsy Woodruff Swan, Kyle Cheney, and Nicholas Wu, “FBI Search Warrant Shows Trump Under Investigation for Potential Obstruction of Justice and Espionage Act Violations,” Politico, 2022.08.12].
There are three primary levels of classification for sensitive government materials: Top secret, secret and confidential.
“Top secret” is the highest level, reserved for the most closely held US national security information. Such documents usually are kept in special government facilities because disclosure could gravely damage national security.
FBI agents on Monday collected four sets of top secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents, it was disclosed on Friday. Agents were revealed to have collected a set of documents labeled “classified/TS/SCI documents,” a reference to top secret and sensitive compartmented material [“FBI Seized Top Secret Documents at Trump’s Home; Espionage Act Cited,” Euractiv and Reuters, 2022.08.12].
The FBI acted and a judge approved this action out of concern that the improper handling of these sensitive documents violates the Espionage Act. Had Trump been showing off these purloined papers and pictures to visitors at Mar-a-Lago, he would literally have been betraying his country, like spies we’ve put to death:
“These are serious crimes,” Barbara McQuade, the former top federal prosecutor in Detroit, told VICE News on Friday. “The Espionage Act can be violated in a number of ways, with prison ranging from no prison time to death, depending on the nature of the information and the person’s intent. This was the statute used to prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were put to death for giving secrets to the Soviets.”
The World War I-era Espionage Act has been used to go after leakers of classified information, and it was used to target Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a large batch of files about secret U.S. surveillance programs and then fled to Russia. The law applies both to actual spies and also to government employees who disseminate documents they’re not supposed to.
“In layman’s terms, the Department of Justice is alleging that Donald Trump is a traitor,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia who has worked on national security issues. “They proved probable cause to the satisfaction of a judge that Donald Trump was going to use this top-secret classified information to harm the United States” [Greg Walters, “Trump Is Being Investigated for Potentially Violating the Espionage Act,” Vice, 2022.08.12].
No, this is no joke, and it is no political game. We are talking about the once-highest government official violating in perhaps the gravest way his oath to protect the country:
Prosecutors said they were searching for evidence of violations of three specific federal criminal laws: 18 USC 793, which is part of the Espionage Act and makes it a crime to remove or misuse information related to national defense; 18 USC 2071, which makes it a crime to hide, damage, or destroy government records; and 18 USC 1519, which makes it a crime to falsify, destroy, or cover up records to obstruct or interfere with a federal investigation or “proper administration of any matter” under the jurisdiction of an agency.
Ryan Goodman, professor of law at New York University, said that the Espionage Act is the “most serious federal offense anyone can imagine.” There are limits to what the president can do unilaterally and this “signals an order of magnitude even above what the president can do alone,” said Goodman.
“It raises the stakes enormously in terms of the pending criminal investigation,” he said [Zoe Tillman, Mark Niquette, and Mario Parker, “Trump’s Seized Documents Point to Probe into Handling of Secrets,” Bloomberg Law, 2022.08.12].
In what seems to further demonstrate Trump’s disregard for the danger posed by mishandling sensitive information, Trump appears to have released an unredacted copy of the search warrant to Brietbart, which published the document with the names of the FBI agents who executed the search warrant, thus subjecting those agents to threats from rabid Trump backers. The FBI removed those agents’ names from the warrant it released.