Despite Trump’s claims, experts say there’s no ‘magic wand’ for a president to declassify documents

Former president donald trump isn’t the first White House veteran to claim — amid a criminal probe into their handling of government secrets — that the president can declassify almost anything he wants, when he wants, and however he wants. wanna.

“If the president says to talk about [a] document, then it’s a declassified document,” Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, told a federal grand jury in 2004. there’s no…process, according to the lawyer, that you have to go through.”

At the time, federal investigators were investigating the leaked identity of a secret CIA agent – but they were also interested in learning more about how parts of a classified document summarizing the alleged efforts of Iraq to obtain weapons of mass destruction in Africa had also become public.

Libby admitted to investigators that he “showed” portions of the Iraq document to a New York Times reporter, but he insisted that then-President George W. Bush “had already declassified” these parts by allowing Libby to share them with the press. .

When the transcripts of Libby’s testimony were later released, it sparked a public debate about how presidents can — and should — exercise their declassification authority.

“When the president determines that classified information can be made public … can that override the declassification process?” a reporter asked White House spokesman Scott McClellan on April 7, 2006. “Is he de facto declassified, by this ruling?”

“The President is authorized to declassify the information as he sees fit,” McClellan replied, without providing further details.

A rigorous examination

Almost two decades later, after FBI agents last week executed a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and deleted several sets of classified documents, there are still few specifics about what a president must do — if anything — before a government secret he wishes to divulge is revealed. no longer be considered classified.

For most government employees seeking to have information declassified, their requests must go through a rigorous review process that can span the entire US intelligence community, to ensure that sources, methods and other national security interests are protected. “[But] there is no formal process that a president is required to follow when declassifying information,” Brian Greer, a former CIA lawyer who specializes in classification matters, told ABC News.

Nonetheless, Greer noted, “there must be evidence that a declassification order took place.” And in Trump’s case, “the Trump team hasn’t produced any credible evidence yet,” he said.

In January, National Archives officials recovered 15 boxes of documents that had been improperly transported to Mar-a-Lago when Trump left the White House last year – then, two months ago, federal agents traveled to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve additional documents. that they thought Trump had failed to turn around. Shortly after that visit, a lawyer for Trump signed a statement saying all classified documents at Mar-a-Lago had been turned over to federal investigators, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News. But authorities believed Trump continued to possess classified documents, leading to last week’s raid.

It’s not exactly clear which records were retrievedd from Trump’s residence last week, but court documents filed by the Justice Department indicate that he is investigating, among other things, potential violations of the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to disclose Sensitive national security information that could harm the United States — — even if it’s unclassified.

PHOTO: Authorities stand outside Mar-a-Lago, the residence of former President Donald Trump, amid reports that the FBI executed a search warrant as part of a documentary investigation, in Palm Beach, Florida on August 8, 2022.

Authorities stand outside Mar-a-Lago, the residence of former President Donald Trump, amid reports that the FBI executed a search warrant as part of a documentary investigation, in Palm Beach, Florida , August 8, 2022.

Jim Rassol/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After the raid, Trump’s team issued a media statement saying that while he was still in office, Trump had issued “a standing order that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to the residence be deemed declassified at the time he removed them.” On social media, Trump himself insisted that the Mar-a-Lago documents were “all declassified”.

“The president is the ultimate classifier and declassifier — but he can’t just wave a magic wand, and he can’t do it in secret,” said Douglas London, a 34-year CIA veteran and author of ” The Recruiter: Espionage and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.

“So if [Trump] and his allies are defending his handling of these documents saying they are no longer classified, they must show the paper trail,” London said.

“Nothing Laughable”

Jeh Johnson, who was the Defense Department’s top lawyer before becoming Homeland Security Secretary under the Obama administration, agreed in an article he published for Lawfare.

“[P]The art and the plot of any act of declassification is to communicate that act to everyone who has the same information, in all federal agencies,” Johnson wrote. This point is true whether the information exists in a document, an email, a one-time power of attorney presentation, and even in the mental consciousness of a government official. Otherwise, what would be the point of a legitimate declassification?”

PHOTO: Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, August 06, 2022.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, August 06, 2022.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

As a result, Johnson said, the Trump team’s claim of a “standing order” that all documents brought to Trump’s residence were therefore “declassified” is “simply laughable.”

In Libby’s case, no information has been released publicly confirming that Bush had allowed Libby to share classified information with a journalist – but at the time, the Bush administration was seeking to disseminate the information more widely and launched a inter-agency review to downgrade it.

Amid growing questions about the course of the war in Iraq, Bush and his allies wanted to bolster their previous claims that the Iraqi regime had sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction in Africa. These claims came under intense scrutiny at the time after the former ambassador sent to investigate Iraq’s alleged efforts, Joe Wilson, publicly revealed that he had found no evidence at all. backing up the Bush administration’s claims and accused US officials of exaggerating the information.

“And so the vice president thought we should get some of these facts out in the press,” Libby told the grand jury. “But before that can be done, the document [summarizing the intelligence community’s conclusions] had to be downgraded.”

Libby said Vice President Cheney “undertook then to get the President’s permission to speak to a reporter about it. He got permission. He told me to go and talk to the reporter.”

“In the public interest”

Ten days after Libby’s meeting with the New York Times reporter, the US government released the document, known as the National Intelligence Estimate.

“How do you respond to critics who argue that the president’s decision to release this information, to effectively declassify it… [was] political use of intelligence information?” a reporter asked White House spokesman McClellan after the document was released.

PHOTO: Scooter Libby attends a bust unveiling ceremony for former Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015.

Scooter Libby attends a bust unveiling ceremony for former Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington on December 3, 2015.

CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, FILE

“It was in the public interest that this information be provided,” McClellan insisted.

Libby was ultimately charged — and convicted — of something else: lying to the grand jury and federal investigators about his role in exposing the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover agent for the CIA. Libby was sentenced to more than two years in federal prison, but her sentence was commuted by Bush in 2007, before Bush left office.

He was later fully pardoned by Trump in 2018.

ABC News’ Alex Mallin and Will Steakin contributed to this report.

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