But as reports came out alleging that Trump had used the call to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Trump started suggesting, instead, that the complaint itself was the problem. “I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” he said at a private event in New York on Thursday. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Trump had it right the first time. I would know, because I used to be one of those “many people listening.” As a former intelligence officer who was detailed to the White House Situation Room, I listened to more of President Barack Obama’s calls with world leaders than I can remember. I would often joke with friends about trying to make small talk with German Chancellor Angela Merkel while she waited for Obama to come to the line. More somberly, I remember speaking with Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, moments after he learned of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane in Ukraine in the early days of his government. Sometimes, our foreign counterparts would put us on the line with their chief executives before Obama was ready; we’d greet them and explain why there was a delay. It was a nerve-racking part of the job and one that couldn’t be outsourced to hold music.
Far from “spying” on the president, I was doing precisely the job that he and his senior advisers asked of me and my colleagues. While we don’t yet know exactly how the current whistleblower may have come to know the contents of the Zelensky call, these calls are, in Trump’s own words, “heavily populated.” He authorizes them to be so, as does every president — and for good reasons.
In the basement of the West Wing, the White House Situation Room is staffed by midcareer professionals from the intelligence community, the State Department and the military. It is often referred to as the nerve center of the federal government, the conduit through which information flows from national security agencies (and increasingly all other agencies, as well) to the president and his aides. In addition to vast amounts of intelligence reporting, the Situation Room is tasked with managing communications between the president and other heads of state. The vice president and national security adviser also use the Situation Room extensively.
Head-of-state calls are logistically complex. A typical call originates at the request of the president or national security adviser. About a third of the calls begin with foreign heads of state calling us. Since the president doesn’t tote around a phone book or have a speed-dial panel for foreign governments, phone numbers and contact procedures are preserved across administrations by Situation Room staffers. These personnel set up the lines and add the appropriate advisers authorized to listen in on the call. Some calls are treated more securely than others. For instance, very few people were read into Obama’s historic call with President Raúl Castro of Cuba until the day it happened because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic efforts. The media wasn’t notified until the next day.
The list of who is authorized to listen to a call changes, depending on the topic, but typically includes the National Security Council’s senior director and relevant staff members for the region or subject matter, as well as the national security adviser and deputies. Many of these advisers will sit with the president in the Oval Office, along with a Situation Room staffer who operates the phones. More often than not, transcription memos are made at the request of the national security adviser. He or she controls the dissemination of these transcripts within the government. This process is followed, with minor modifications, anywhere the president may be.
When a transcript is not requested, advisers in the room still usually make notes to follow up on action items. And you’d be surprised at how unreliable the phone lines are. Situation Room personnel often have to stay on the line for the entire call so they can reconnect the leaders instantly in the event a call is dropped. Even without a transcript, there are many people who are privy to the contents of a call, and this access is much wider than you might initially suspect. In my experience, it was not uncommon for a head-of-state call to consume the time of 10 people, all creating paper trails subject to the Presidential Records Act.
Trump authorized the release of the rough transcript of his call with Zelensky. The note on the bottom of the document — “CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion” — has led to some speculation that it might have been edited before release or that lawmakers should request a recording. Consistent with White House practices since the Nixon administration, no recordings were made of the president during my tenure. We used up to three notetakers to transcribe what we heard on the calls, to produce memos that were as accurate and close to verbatim as possible. This document appears consistent with those practices. Never in my experience was a transcript edited to remove politically damaging or even personally embarrassing comments. To the contrary, it was critical that as full record be made to ensure that relationships and policies developed during these calls could be advanced by the president’s team and other parts of the government.
Trump and others in his orbit must all be well aware that there is nothing inherently nefarious about an intelligence officer knowing what the president said on the phone. It is, in fact, the norm. What is far from normal is that one of these officers heard about something so disturbing that he or she risked their career to become a whistleblower. And what’s sadly becoming normal is Trump’s willingness to attack any individual or institution that challenges his behavior as “partisan” or part of some “deep state” conspiracy. It has become this administration’s reflex.
I heard a lot on the phones at the White House — some of it hilarious and a lot of it deadly serious. I never once heard something, however, that made me consider becoming a whistleblower and telling others about the call. Whistleblower complaints in the intelligence world are rare, and the potential consequences for the employee testing the system are high. As we’ve now seen, the current complaint alleges that multiple government officials spoke to one another about what they perceived as Trump soliciting “interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election.” A prospect so grave compels us all to take the complaint seriously — and to treat the administration’s self-interested attempts at obfuscating and playing the victim with a great deal of skepticism.