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Opinion What worries me most about the classified information discovered at Mar-a-Lago

Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
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Attorney General Merrick Garland was on firm ground when he signaled Tuesday that the Justice Department will take a methodical approach to the discovery of classified material at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence: “We will … look at the facts and the law and take it from there.” Whether Justice will launch a full investigation into the legality of Trump’s actions remains to be seen.

What can’t wait, however, is a full-blown inquiry into Trump’s handling and safeguarding of classified information, including top-secret documents, that were taken with him when he left the White House. Some of the information in Trump’s possession at Mar-a-Lago was so sensitive that, with respect to the top-secret materials, unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause, by definition, “exceptionally grave damage” to national security.

The U.S. government has no choice: Regardless of Garland’s plans, national security officials must determine whether Trump took all the appropriate steps at Mar-a-Lago to protect spirited-away classified materials from unauthorized disclosure or compromise. (In a statement, Trump denied any impropriety in his possession or handling of the materials.)

In fact, the government, presumably FBI agents, should have been on the ground at Mar-a-Lago the very day the National Archives and Records Administration advised the Justice Department that it had identified “items marked as classified national security information” within 15 boxes at Trump’s private estate. The Post reported the National Archives discovery more than a week ago. What has happened since then? This isn’t an innocuous inquiry.

Government agencies that produced, own and are responsible for controlling the top-secret information that was taken have a need to know whether their information could have fallen into the wrong hands. Lives, vital sources and methods of collection, critical U.S. interests, including relations with foreign governments, depend upon top-secret information being properly safeguarded.

For me, this is neither a juicy Trump news story nor a spectator sport.

I spent years of another life protecting U.S. classified information. My activities ranged from investigating individuals’ trustworthiness to handling national security documents, to putting in place physical and procedural safeguards, to preventing unauthorized disclosures to those without a need to know. I did it in Washington and in Europe, and when the Cold War was rather heated.

Garland can ponder his next move. But someone in a position of authority had better find out what Trump did with top-secret materials taken from the White House, his tender sensibilities notwithstanding.

There are carefully prescribed government-wide procedures for the handling, storage, protection and transporting of top-secret information.

Where were the documents kept at Mar-a-Lago? How were they stored, and in what kind of equipment or facility? Who at Mar-a-Lago had potential access to them? Given the circumstances of their removal from the White House, and Trump’s past defiance of the Presidential Records Act, which requires document preservation, the government must — not should — but must investigate the thorny question of whether classified information in Trump’s possession might have been compromised.

And respond accordingly.

Whether top-secret materials were or were not intentionally mishandled — and who, if anyone, was grossly negligent — are important questions, but for another day. Political partisans can also spar over those issues.

For now, the government needs to know how, exactly, former president Trump treated highly sensitive national security information taken from the White House more than a year ago. This is urgent.