Security Expert Breaks Down How White House Documents Are Stored
The transcript of President Trump's call with Ukraine shed light on a method for classifying documents that's even more top secret than top secret. WSJ spoke to a former National Security Council official to understand the intricacies of the White House server security system.
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- [Narrator] When a president does anything, like, make a simple phone call, the Presidential Records Act says it has to be recorded. Twitter DMs, sticky notes and all. Kelly Magsamen is a former National Security Council official under both Presidents Bush and Obama. During her experience in the White House, every call by the president included an involved process to keep all of this information in the right place. - There are basically three main systems that NSC staff use. First is the unclassified system, which we like to refer to as the low side. There is a secret system which we call sipper, which is used essentially to communicate with State Department and Pentagon, people outside of the National Security Council. And then there's the top secret system that is used on day-to-day basis by most of the NSC staff. And then there's a separate, which you're seeing in the press, codeword system and server that is completely distinct, that most NSC staff have no access to, physical or otherwise. - [Narrator] In the context of President Trump and his phone call with the President of Ukraine, this is the important detail to pay attention to. There are three normal and secure systems for most information. But one, as Magsamen described, Mission Impossible-level, codeword-only system. Wall Street Journal reporting shows that system is where the rough transcript of this phone call ended up. And both former White House and NSC officials are concerned that misclassification was used as a way to hide politically damaging information, and not national security information. The White House says that they're still grappling with the implications of the complaint. - The way that these call memorandums work is every single sentence or paragraph carries a classification based on whatever's in it. So, when the President picks up the phone and says, "Hi Vladimir, how are you doing today?" That'd be unclassified, 'cause it's not containing any classified information. Then the next paragraph could be something that's at the confidential level, so for example, "Hi Vladimir, I wanted to get your opinion "on our latest trade agreement." Even on a secret level, secret is usually things that are highly sensitive, maybe you're in the middle of a negotiation, maybe there's potential discussion of military operations. Most presidential calls are classified at most really around the secret level. - [Narrator] From the moment the President picks up the phone, to all of those classifications being made, there are usually at least three people listening in, transcribing everything they hear. Sometimes, NSC subject matter experts are on the call too, like the NSC Director for that particular country. They make up a unified draft that's reviewed by officials in the NSC Directorate and the White House Situation Room to refine, review for substance, classify and even just to spell check. It goes to the National Security Advisor's office for a final review and sign off, and after that it's off to the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council to be distributed to whomever is cleared and needs that information. - If the President of the United States were discussing top secret codeword information with a foreign leader, whoever is transcribing the notes would not be transcribing it on a normal system, because codeword is our tippy top, most secret intelligence programs. Very unlikely, if not impossible, that the President of the United States is discussing codeword information with a foreign counterpart. So to begin with, this is not normal, it wouldn't happen. But if he had been, it would've been on a completely different system, and the people who are able to handle that information would have to have special clearances. - [Narrator] Special clearances to just that one program being discussed. That system is so secure that even if someone gets access, and is read into hypothetical codeword alpha material, it doesn't mean that they can simply access other material about hypothetical codeword beta on the same system. codeword clearance is as close to total information lockdown as you can get. So if phone calls by the President are classified at best, where in the process did the Ukraine call go from being placed on the regular systems to the Mission Impossible-level codeword systems? - I suspect that it was treated as a normal call, the White House Situation Room clearly produced the transcript, several people in the NSC staff had a chance to review that transcript, so my guess is that the decision was made to put in on a codeword server at the National Security Advisor's level, potentially the NSC Chief of Staff, kind of at the third rung of the process, and then that information was transferred to a codeword server. But that information was not codeword. - [Narrator] The White House did not respond to comment on when the material was put on the codeword server, but says that the justification was to avoid more leaks. - The American public has to have confidence in their national security system and process. And there have been times in history where that trust has been broken. We saw this in the Iran-Contra affair where there was obfuscation of material, hiding of material from the American public, lying about it. These classifications exist to protect, intelligence sources and methods are our biggest crown jewels, they are not meant to protect political wrongdoing, corruption and certainly not meant to protect criminal activity. (dramatic music)