The country’s top intelligence officials do not appear to have launched a formal damage assessment of the documents found at Mar-a-Lagoeven though the government has known since January that highly sensitive documents were improperly stored at former President Donald Trump’s golf club and residential compound, four current US officials told NBC News.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, which oversees the CIA, National Security Agency and 16 other agencies, has a policy that states that a damages assessment “must be made when there is a disclosure or an actual or suspected unauthorized compromise of classified national information that could harm the national security of the United States. The 2014 Policy states that damage assessments “may also be conducted in the event of actual or suspected loss, misuse, or unauthorized access to or alteration of classified national information that could adversely affect national security.”
Representatives of the DNI, CIA and other intelligence agencies declined to comment, as did representatives of the FBI and the Department of Justice.
Current and former officials said they found the apparent lack of a damage assessment puzzling. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject. Some said it suggests the Biden administration is concerned about the appearance of involvement beyond the Justice Department in the busy investigation that led to FBI search of Trump’s home.
“I suspect the Biden administration is currently being very careful not to appear involved beyond the independent FBI and the Justice Department,” a former senior intelligence official said.
Elizabeth Goitein, an intelligence policy expert at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, said she believes highly classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago – so sensitive they should normally be viewed at a special facility – would make a damage assessment mandatory under DNI rules.
“Obviously the intelligence community would assess a compromise of SAP (Special Access Programs) or Top Secret TS/SCI information to determine if it compromises national security,” she said.
Officials added that members of the intelligence community beyond the FBI likely reviewed classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago and it is likely that an informal investigation into possible damage took place. The CIA would need to know if it should be concerned about the safety of a human source, for example, and the NSA would seek to understand if a communications interception program had been compromised.
“It is inconceivable that the DNI would not make an assessment to determine whether classified information has been compromised,” said a current US official with knowledge of intelligence matters. “That being said, I don’t know of any.”
Two congressional officials briefed on the intelligence matters said they were not told a damage assessment had been undertaken. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have formally requested one, but neither has received an official response, officials said.
According to a letter to Trump’s lawyers in May released by the National Archives and Records Administration on Tuesday, archivists found more than 100 examples of documents with classified marks — 700 pages in all — in documents Trump turned over to the National Archives in January. The New York Times reported Monday that the total rose to 300 documents with classified markings, including the line of the August 8 Mar-a-Lago search. NBC News has not confirmed this information.
In accordance with government policy, the archives had asked Trump for permission to turn over the first tranche of sensitive documents to the FBI, according to the May letter. The May letter, from Acting National Archivist Debra Wall, quotes the Justice Department’s National Security Division as telling Trump’s lawyers in April that “there are significant national security interests in the FBI and other members of the intelligence community who have access” to classified documents to conduct. an assessment of the damage.
The letter quotes the Department of Justice as saying that some documents in the boxes were marked with the highest classification levels, “including Special Access Program (SAP) documents.” This designation is given to secret programs that are only known to a small number of authorized people in the government.
The Department of Justice added that “access to the documents is not only necessary for the purposes of our ongoing criminal investigation, but the executive branch must also make an assessment of the potential damage resulting from the apparent manner in which these documents have been stored and transported and take any necessary corrective action.
“As a result, we are seeking immediate access to these documents to facilitate the necessary assessments that need to be carried out within the executive branch,” he said.
A former national security official said spy agencies would want to know immediately if any sources or methods had been compromised.
“Whenever classified information is compromised, there is an assessment or an investigation,” the official said. “It determines where the source material came from and whether anything has been exposed that could impact human sources or expose sources and methods. And whoever is responsible for disclosure is held accountable, whether they are Whether it’s being retrained in handling classified documents, losing your clearance, or even being charged, the facility where the information comes from may even be shut down pending an investigation.
A second former senior intelligence official added that while some damage assessments take years, “with something like this, it’s likely that the IC [intelligence community] would try to triage, then they would do a preliminary damage assessment.
The first former senior intelligence official said intelligence agencies will be on the lookout for “evidence that this information appears in foreign reporting”, including communications intercepts.
“Even if there is no allegation or assumption of loss, they will start looking,” the official said.