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Opinion The Mar-a-Lago case is about national security, not politics

Documents seized at Mar-a-Lago spread over a carpet. (Jose Romero/Department of Justice via Getty Images)

Glenn S. Gerstell served as general counsel of the National Security Agency and the NSA’s Central Security Service from 2015 to 2020.

To protect our national security, we need to take politics out of the Mar-a-Lago documents case.

For those who dislike former president Donald Trump, that means not jumping to conclusions about his motivations or even responsibility for retaining classified documents. Although Tuesday’s 36-page court filing by federal prosecutors told us more about how many and what kind of documents the FBI seized on Aug. 8, we still don’t know exactly what was in those documents, and key elements of criminal culpability are yet to be established.

For Republicans, that means stepping back from an automatic defense of the former president and considering what is really at stake here — understanding an extraordinary failure, for whatever reason and at whoever’s direction, to safeguard documents critical to our national security. Irresponsible attacks on law enforcement and improper demands for details of an ongoing investigation corrode faith in our judicial system.

But more importantly, the intense, politically charged focus on criminality deflects attention from a far more pernicious danger — that we fail to appreciate the national security risks posed by casually tossing government documents into moving boxes. Tuesday’s extensive court filing makes clear that by trivializing the affair as merely “mishandling documents” — as if this were the bureaucratic equivalent of taking home a pad of Post-it notes from the office — we fail to confront serious national security issues.

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Based on the technical markings of the top secret documents (thus invariably labeled in red capital letters on each page) that spent many months at Mar-a-Lago, the information they contain could be absolutely critical to keeping our nation safe. Those papers could reveal identities of CIA sources or FBI informants, information about how our spy agencies conduct electronic surveillance on foreign adversaries, details of past or future covert operations against foreign terrorists, reports on secret military technologies, or even battle plans for how the United States might react to, say, the launch of a North Korean missile.

None of this is far-fetched: Some of these documents, such as those classified under special access programs, by definition contain some of our most closely held national security secrets. Moreover, given human nature and what we know about Trump’s predilections, it’s more likely that he (or whoever took the documents from the White House when he moved out) grabbed the more interesting and sensitive ones. No American would want to endanger the lives of our troops or covert agents because these kinds of secrets fell into the hands of foreign adversaries. Yet that is precisely the risk posed simply by being careless with pieces of government paper labeled top secret.

As part of their relentless efforts to steal such secrets, China, Russia and other countries deploy agents on our soil and seek to recruit Americans to help them. It’s not too hard to envision one of those agents trying to entice or blackmail a worker at Mar-a-Lago to get information. Indeed, during Trump’s presidency, two Chinese nationals were apprehended at Mar-a-Lago for unauthorized entry. One had five cellphone SIM cards, cameras, nine thumb drives and thousands of dollars in cash — hardly a typical Florida tourist’s baggage. She served eight months in prison and was deported to China. Is it possible that some of the recently retrieved documents — which had been stored in a room off a hallway used by guests — were accessed by someone unauthorized to do so? We don’t know. But we can’t exclude the possibility — and that conclusion has enormous potential ramifications.

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When a private company’s computer network is breached, it often has no choice but to assume all its data is vulnerable and begin altering its systems and notifying customers. The same principle applies when national security secrets are compromised — but the stakes are much higher. That’s why the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is now examining the classified documents previously stored at Mar-a-Lago. Based on what it discovers, the government might, for example, have to pull agents out of foreign countries, reconfigure secret codes for weapons or communications, or change entire strategic and battle plans — even if they can’t say for sure that the documents were accessed by a foreign adversary.

If it turns out that the documents contain no major operational or technical secrets, few security adjustments would likely be necessary. That would be a relief — but, critically, the documents still had to be retrieved to reach that conclusion.

Government employees don’t have the right to decide for themselves which national security secrets they may put in jeopardy. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the federal government has indicted low-level employees and senior officials who have walked out of secure government buildings with just a piece of paper or two containing secret information. We trivialize at our peril what such pieces of paper can mean for keeping our nation safe. They aren’t Post-it notes.