Column – Classified docs are nothing to thumb your nose at
Published 6:07 pm Tuesday, September 13, 2022
Former President Donald Trump’s stashing of classified documents in his private golf club should be disturbing to all Americans, but most frightening to those who have at any time dealt with our nation’s secrets.
And yet, some very senior elected government officials have chosen to dismiss the taking of the documents, as well as the unremitting determination not to return them, as nothing other than one more quirky thing by the King of Quirks. They may never admit it, but they all know they are wrong.
Their cavalier attitude has reminded me of my naivete when I was a 23-year-old wearing a Navy uniform in 1969. I worked as personal yeoman to the chief of naval communications, who also served as the assistant chief of naval operations for communications and cryptology. Our office was in the Pentagon.
To perform clerical duties for him, I was cleared by the FBI to hold a
Top-Secret clearance. I was largely a gofer who transported, logged and secured classified material, and saw that documents which no longer had value were properly destroyed.
Adm. Fitzpatrick sent me down to the chief of naval information one morning to pick up a news story from a small Wisconsin newspaper that seemed to be of considerable interest. When I got to CHINFO, a senior chief handed me an envelope and a Top-Secret log, which I was told to sign. I told him I thought I was picking up a news story.
“You’re picking up a Top-Secret document,” he said. “Sign the log.”
I returned the package to the admiral, thinking to myself, “This is just stupid.”
The admiral was a consummate professional, but also a mentor to those who worked for him. When the dust settled later that day, he called me in and said that, with a degree in journalism, I must be wondering about the classification of the news story. He was right.
The story was about a Navy program titled Project Sanguine, which was one of several the Navy was studying as a better way to communicate with nuclear submarines. This was 1969, during the peak of the Cold War, and early in communications technology. Sanguine was to employ a massive electric grid in rural Wisconsin as an antenna to send Extremely Low Frequency signals.
The existence of the program was publicly known, but not the details, which were highly classified. A Wisconsin congressman had been given a Top-Secret briefing on the system, and almost immediately told his local newspaper some of the classified details.
The country’s security depended heavily on its growing nuclear submarine fleets, ballistic and tactical, and accurate communications with those boats was critical, not only in the event of war but to prevent an accidental one. Adm. Fitzpatrick was responsible for development of that communications, and the congressman’s intentional disclosure of secret data was no joke.
Yes, it was a newspaper clip, he told me, but that didn’t change the classification or the damage its disclosure could cause.
Sanguine proved to be so unpopular, and also impractical, that it was abandoned, and numerous smaller variations were used by the Navy for the next 30 years until newer technology passed them by. The point, though, is that the secrecy surrounding submarine communications was not to be messed with. It was classified, and that was that.
If I had any lingering doubts as to the Navy’s single-minded approach to classified material, they were removed by two other incidents.
The admiral’s office was directly connected to the file and reception room where I worked, and early one morning I carried his mail to his desk before anyone else arrived. I heard a file cabinet drawer in the next room open, and instinctively thought “trouble.” I ran into the outer office to find a man reaching into a file drawer marked Top Secret. I yelled at him to stop and picked up a phone to call security.
“I am security,” he said.
I demanded that he prove it and he showed me his ID card and badge, which, with trembling hands, I noted on a scratch pad.
“You’re lucky,” he said as he smiled and walked out.
A fellow yeoman in another office wasn’t so lucky. A security person stepped into the office he was manning, picked up a TS document lying on a desk and walked out. He lost his job and was transferred to a less vulnerable position.
The point behind those snatch-and-grab drills was simple. Material left unsecured could be stolen by anyone. It still can.
I never had the additional sensitive “Eyes Only” clearance for the type of material that was found in abundance at Mar-A-Lago. Frankly, I managed to dodge the paperwork and additional security check necessary to get it because I didn’t want to stay late night after night babysitting documents while the admiral worked on the really hot stuff. I preferred to let his aide, a young lieutenant who did have the clearance, keep late hours.
The admiral knew I was dodging it, and just smiled.
One morning, a sailor rolled a hand truck into the office and said the material was to come there and I needed to sign for it. It was a 4-foot stack of packaged material, with serial numbers and a log sheet for each package.
I signed, he left, and a few minutes later, the lieutenant walked in and asked what the material was doing there. Turns out it was cryptographic material that could only be handled in the highly secure message center.
I signed the material over to the cryptologic people but was ordered to the security office several times over the next week to explain what I didn’t know about the packages.
I also learned that being privy to governmental secrets is a lifetime responsibility. Responsibility doesn’t end with retirement. The admiral’s assistant, a captain, was looking forward to retirement. He showed me photos of the sloop he was buying and planning to sail to the Caribbean, and probably beyond.
Because of the classified information he had worked with, though, the Navy Department put serious limits on where he could travel aboard his boat. There was too much risk that, in retirement, he could be captured in an effort to obtain the naval communications secrets he possessed.
All that was a half-century ago, but the importance of caring for the nation’s secrets hasn’t diminished. In fact, the risks are considerably greater today because of technology and the ease with which material can be intercepted. All of us should be grateful that the Department of Justice, Department of Defense and other agencies take security seriously, and we should expect nothing less from elected officials. They put the nation at risk with their flippancy.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.