The whistleblower reported that White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s call with Zelensky, concluding that “they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain.” After that, the whistleblower claimed, White House officials sought to “lock down” the details of that call.
How? Officials were “directed” by White House lawyers to “remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored,” and load it on to a “separate electronic system” normally used for “classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”
And the whistleblower claimed this happened repeatedly.
This abuse of power is worse than it first appears, once you drill down into the details of how this likely worked and what it means.
For such an explanation, I spoke to Ned Price, a former senior director at the National Security Council, the president’s advisory team on national security and foreign policy matters. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Plum Line: The whistleblower describes a computer system in which transcripts — like this one of the call — are “typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to cabinet level officials.” Can you describe this system?
Price: That’s an allusion to a system that National Security Council staffers use to conduct the vast majority of classified business — to communicate about classified matters. That system can accommodate material that is classified up to the level of Top Secret.
What other types of things are stored on this system?
It’s 99.9 percent of the classified business that the NSC does. Correspondence with the State Department. Correspondence with the intelligence community. Correspondence with others in the policy community. This is essentially the go-to computer system for nearly all classified business of the NSC staff.
The whistleblower complaint then says the transcript was loaded into a “separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.” Can you describe that system?
As described in the complaint, this is a system to which very few people on the NSC staff have access. These staffers form part of what is known as the NSC Directorate for Intelligence Programs. These are the very few career officials whose job is to oversee and safeguard the most sensitive information.
This system can retain information up to the classification level that’s known as Top Secret//Codeword. That refers to a series of special compartments within the realm of Top Secret information.
How large a group in this directorate would have access to this?
No more than a handful. They are career officials from within the intelligence community who have, throughout their professional lives, dealt with extraordinarily sensitive information. They come from the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among other departments and agencies.
Unlike other career officials who may come from non-intelligence community components, they are specially trained to safeguard and protect Top Secret//Codeword information.
What type of material is generally stored on this much more sensitive system?
It is supposed to be the most sensitive information within our government’s possession. Notionally speaking, that could include covert action programs overseen by NSC staff but run by the CIA. It could include extraordinarily sensitive intelligence information that emanates from the most precious intelligence sources.
There is supposed to be a bare minimum of information on that system because it is so highly protected and segregated from other classified systems.
Is it unusual to store something like this call transcript on there? The whistleblower says one White House official described this act as an “abuse of this electronic system, because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”
The executive order that governs classified information specifically forbids classification in order to protect information that’s embarrassing or otherwise politically sensitive. This is something Congress would want to look at.
This system is highly regulated and protected with the most rigorous safeguards available. The introduction of any materials that don’t meet that very high threshold corrupts the integrity of that system. It’s now going to be under tremendous scrutiny, including by Congress.
This has the potential to make information that should be on the system more vulnerable and expose it to additional eyeballs and to additional risk, which has the potential to do tremendous harm.
An appendix in the whistleblower complaint says, “according to White House officials I spoke with, this was not the first time under this administration that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system, solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information.”
Is placing anything in this system because of its political sensitivity itself an abuse of power? What does it mean that it may have happened multiple times?
It means officials leveraged infrastructure designed to protect our most sensitive secrets to protect the president himself.
What recourse is there at this point?
Congress needs to determine if these calls represented additional attempts by Trump to put his own personal and political interests ahead of the national interest. Congress must also scrutinize whether the preservation of records of those calls on this particular system points to an attempted coverup by those around the president.