Ted Gup is the author of “Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life” and “The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA.” In January, he will be teaching a seminar on “Secrecy and Democracy” at Williams College in Massachusetts. Gup has been a Guggenheim fellow, a grantee of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Peace and Security Program, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)For four years doing research for a book, I interviewed the families of those who died while undercover for the CIA — widows and widowers, fatherless and motherless children, brothers and sisters. Most had died violently: bombings, kidnappings, torture. Their faces and their voices come to mind now as I read of former President Donald Trump possibly taking ultra-sensitive classified documents.
Ted GupOthers have written that Trump’s actions may be unlawful and indefensible. But I think of the dishonor brought upon the memories of those who gave their all for this country, who volunteered in the belief that their commander in chief would have their backs. The least they have a right to expect is the safeguarding of their “sources and methods” that produce critical intelligence and upon which lives depend.A redacted version of the affidavit for the Mar-a-Largo search warrant released Friday confirms the worst fears of many within the intelligence community. The reference to “HCS” for HUMINT Control System alludes to intelligence gathered by covert operatives — men and women in harm’s way. Such materials, should they fall into the wrong hands, could endanger not only American operatives but legions of foreign nationals who provide them intelligence. Trump’s team has claimed that he had “absolute authority to declassify documents.” He has also shared audio on his social media website, Truth Social, that “I did nothing wrong.”Trump supporters who clamored for the release of the affidavit should be careful what they wish forHow did we come to this point? Trump is not the answer, merely the ultimate expression of a slow and steady erosion of respect for state secrets, the routine mishandling of sensitive documents and the slipshod and uneven prosecution of those who willfully violated the laws governing classified documents — in particular, the coddling of the powerful and the harsh punishment of their underlings. Read MoreAgainst such a backdrop, Trump’s dangerously casual handling of state secrets seems all but inevitable, the natural extension of a broken system. Such actions cast a shocking light on a bureaucracy corrupted by power, arrogance and petty opportunism. The allegations are not merely violations of some arcane bureaucratic rules governing documents. Trump may have betrayed those who put their lives at risk, and, by example, opened the door to an even more permissive security environment.For years now, prosecution for such violations has been defined not by what was taken but by whom. From senior officials to a four-star general, the unspoken mantra has been “Do as we say, not as we do.” The system is rife with apologists and enablers complicit in promoting a double standard that we now may see playing out at Mar-a-Largo. The normalization of such behavior may find its fullest and most pernicious expression in the actions of the former commander in chief himself.Often lost in the debates over whether the search of Trump’s Florida residence was justified and whether the President possesses the power to declassify by fiat (a concept as doubtful as it is dangerous) is the core principle: Respect for state secrets is integral to the protection of American lives. The success of any intelligence-gathering operation, any military campaign, any diplomatic undertaking, rests upon the ability to keep secrets.And the ultimate custodial responsibility for securing those secrets is in the hands of a President. He, above all others, bears that burden and sets the example for others to follow. Failure to honor that trust sends shudders through the entire national security apparatus and signals a kind of moral collapse that reverberates throughout the ranks of those pledged to serve and defend. Rigorous classification protocols, intensive training of those with original classification authority and strict criminal penalties — ones ironically elevated to felonies by a law Trump himself signed — cannot offset the widespread and systemic disregard for those constraints. In their stead has emerged an all-too-capricious system that allows for individuals to substitute private or political agendas for those of the country’s security interests. A seismic shift in Trump's legal woesTrump’s alleged disregard of the laws and tenets of classification speaks not merely to his own outsized ego but to a culture of secrecy that has, over time, inadvertently greenlighted such behavior, granting a get-out-of-jail-free card to violators in the upper echelons while punishing subordinates for the same or lesser offenses.The list of those who have mishandled secrets is all too familiar and a testament to the lackadaisical attitudes such coddling has produced. The mighty and well-connected suffer a slap on the wrist or a fine. For some, the slate is wiped clean with a presidential pardon. Former Clinton national security adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger unlawfully exited the National Archives with classified materials. He paid a $50,000 fine and faced community service. Former CIA Director John Deutch took home ultra-sensitive materials and placed them on his unsecured home computer. President Bill Clinton pardoned him. Four-star Gen. David Petraeus shared secrets with a girlfriend penning his biography. He paid a $100,000 fine and received two years of probation. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the outing of a covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame. President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month sentence, and Trump later pardoned him. Whereas the likes of Berger and Petraeus were merely fined, low-ranking officers served prison time and were dishonorably discharged.And consider the fate of these underlings. Defense contractor Weldon Marshall was found to have classified material on his computer. In June 2018, he was sentenced to more than three years in prison. That same year, Reynaldo Regis, a former CIA contractor charged with mishandling classified documents and making false statements, was sentenced to three months behind bars. In February, Asia Janay Lavarello, a former Department of Defense civilian employee who took classified materials to an unauthorized location, was sentenced to three months in prison and fined $5,500.Trump is worried after FBI search — and he should beMembers of the public seem almost inured to such disclosures, selectively voicing their wrath along strictly party lines. Trump pilloried Hillary Clinton for using a personal email server to conduct State Department business as secretary of state, allegedly compromising national security. “Lock her up,” his supporters chanted. But those same supporters seem more aggrieved by the search warrant served at the former President’s Florida residence than the materials recovered there. And that discovery of secret documents at Mar-a-Largo has produced its own unsavory measure of glee from the left. Ultimately, the security of a nation’s secrets rests not on vaults or code words but on the underlying respect accorded it by those charged with protecting it. A cavalier attitude toward classification among those in command breeds contempt and cynicism among those asked to carry out orders. And, in a nation already awash with thousands of secrets, a level of desensitization is inevitable. Top officials find it all too easy to justify retaining documents they deem wrongly classified or innocuous. “If we guard our toothbrushes and diamonds with equal zeal, we will lose fewer toothbrushes and more diamonds,” warned McGeorge Bundy, former national security adviser to both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.But there can be little argument about the sensitivity of top secret documents reportedly found at Mar-a-Lago. Their exposure “could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” Materials stamped Sensitive Compartmented Information may well reveal sources and methods of intelligence-gathering. They are meant to be reviewed in secure facilities impervious to penetration. Again, I think of those in the covert ranks or military whose lives depend on secrets kept. They could hardly have imagined such records stored in the basement of a Florida resort or residence that foreigners routinely visit. 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The Mar-a-Lago documents are not tchotchkes with which to impress fawning visitors, foreign or domestic, or, unthinkable as it may be, materials to be bartered for some future pecuniary or political advantage. It is a mistake to think of them as papers in a box. They are the lives of those who risk their all on our behalf. Stand, as I have, before the CIA’s Wall of Honor with its 139 stars etched into its marble face, each one a covert operative lost in the field, and you will have some measure of what such boxes may hold. Anyone who is found to have treated the nation’s most sensitive secrets as the spoils of office must be held accountable.