White House ordered top-secret system upgraded to prevent leaks

The Trump White House upgraded the security of the National Security Council’s top-secret codeword system in the spring of 2018, according to two former Trump White House officials familiar with the matter, as part of an effort to ferret out and deter leaks.

The changes included a new log of who accessed specific documents in the NSC’s system — known as NICE or “NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment” — and was designed in part to prevent leaks of records of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders and to find out the suspected leaker if transcripts did get disclosed, one of the former officials said. Prior to the upgrade, officials could only see who had uploaded or downloaded material to the system but usually not who accessed which documents.

That highly classified system is being newly scrutinized in light of a whistleblower complaint alleging that national security officials used the system—meant for storing information classified at the highest level — to conceal politically embarrassing conversations, including a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 in which President Donald Trump urged Zelensky to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

If hiding politically embarrassing material, rather than protecting national security secrets, was the motivation, experts and former officials said, it would be an abuse of the codeword system. While not necessarily an illegal act, it does run counter to an executive order signed by President Obama in 2009 that says information can’t be classified to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” they said.

POLITICO first reported last week that the White House began to use the codeword system to restrict the number of officials who had access to these transcripts following leaks in 2017.

As part of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, lawmakers are interested in learning who was involved in uploading the call records to that system—a stark departure from how the system is typically used and how memos of the president’s exchanges have traditionally been handled, former officials and experts said.

The basic concept of logging who went in and out of top-secret NSC-wide systems is not unique to the Trump administration, according to three former National Security Council officials.

One of those officials with direct knowledge of the system also said the ability to log who accessed specific documents in the codeword system “seems consistent with some of the controls in place” on the system under President Obama. “It’s a way to further tighten controls on the information,” the former official said.

When asked for comment, a senior administration official said: “We’re not going to discuss how we handle classified materials.”

But the administration’s external supporters have defended the move. Former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, speaking on Fox News Tuesday morning, said, “I think they were acting responsibly. We have to protect our relationships. We have to be able to communicate with our allies and partners. The president should be able to do that without those classified conversations and exchange maybe of national security information being leaked to the press.”

While only a certain number of NSC staffers have the codeword system installed on their workstations, only a subset of those staffers, in turn, has access to specific documents on that system. The former official with knowledge of the system added that he had never seen transcripts put on that codeword system during his time in the Obama administration.

The changes came months after entire transcripts of President Trump’s calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico were leaked to the Washington Post, setting off a furious internal search for the source of the unauthorized disclosures and widening the mistrust between the president and his own staff.

Before the upgrade, the White House began restricting the distribution of the transcripts of the president’s calls with foreign leaders to a narrower group of officials. Previously, the transcripts had been put on a shared drive that all NSC staffers had access to, which made it easier for leaks to happen, according to a former Trump White House official.

Officials in the NSC’s intelligence directorate had to take the matter up to the principals level because “it was a pretty fundamental change to the system.” John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, the respective chief of staff and national security adviser at the time, signed off on the change.

A former White House official said the upgrade came amid "a hard look at who had a ‘need to know’, which is fundamental to managing classified info and highly sensitive documents, conversations, emails, etc." This former official characterized the changes as the White House merely adopting the standard classification practices used at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Still, intelligence and national security experts called it “highly unusual” for these kinds of routine calls between world leaders to be placed into a system that’s intended to be used only for information about the nation’s most highly compartmented programs — for instance, covert actions like the secret raid in Pakistan that led to the assassination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“It risks undermining a whole host of important national security activities,” said April Doss, who served as senior minority counsel for the Russia investigation on the Senate Intelligence Committee and, prior to that, as a top attorney at the National Security Agency. “Most, if not all” officials who would need to have access to call readouts as part of carrying out their regular duties in advising on foreign affairs and implementing the administration’s policies, she added, “would not have access” to the codeword system.

Only a small number of NSC staffers have access to NICE, and an even smaller subset of those people had the ability to upload or download documents from the system. The person who most likely put the transcript into NICE would have been one of the NSC staffers responsibility for maintaining this highly compartmentalized system for intelligence storage at the NSC.

“There’s really no one else who would have been trusted to do it,” said the former official.

People who likely had access to the Ukraine call transcript included people like the NSC’s Ukraine country director, the senior director for Europe and Russia, a number of people from the legal office, a couple of West Wing staffers, the staff secretary and several others in the Situation Room, this person said.

CNN and the New York Times reported that transcripts of Trump’s calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi leader Mohammed Bin Salman were also placed into that highly classified system to prevent them from being leaked.

The Russian calls “were pretty much what you would expect, you can take the first part of the Zelensky call with all of the over the top effusive praise and basically copy and paste onto pretty much any head of state call with Trump, whether it was Emmanuel Macron or Vladimir Putin,” said the former NSC official. “Every one of them knew to start the call by praising him for the thing that he had just done that week.”

On his calls with Putin, most of the time Trump talked about wanting to put the relationship between the U.S. and Russia on a friendlier footing, but complained that the media and other people in the government were preventing him from doing so.

“They were certainly the type of thing that you would not want in public because they were just really embarrassing from the standpoint of just national pride,” said the official.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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