Whistleblower allegation of server misuse raises alarm bells

Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump talks with reporters after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 26, 2019. Copyright Evan Vucci AP
By Carol E. Lee with NBC News Politics
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If true, the allegations should spark an investigation into the potential mishandling of a classified system, intelligence experts say.


WASHINGTON — Allegations by a whistleblower that White House officials misused a highly-classified database to shield President Donald Trump's quest for information against a political opponent have raised alarm among national security experts and former government officials familiar with the secret, electronic system.

The whistleblower, whose complaint is at the heart of calls for an impeachment inquiry into Trump, also asserted that White House officials have misused the classified system multiple times to bury "politically sensitive" information detailed in records of the president's interactions with world leaders. Former and current intelligence officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that, if true, such misuse should spark an investigation into the potential mishandling of a classified system.

In the complaint released to the public on Thursday, the whistleblower wrote that White House officials tried to keep administration officials from seeing a transcript of a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by moving it to a classified system that a very limited number of administration officials have access to and that is reserved for details about covert operations and such highly-sensitive information that it's given a code word.

The transcript of Trump's phone call with Zelensky — like the vast majority of his discussions with foreign leaders, according to officials — was designated secret and did not rise to the highly classified level.

Critics of the president have said any use of the system for documents simply deemed secret would be an abuse of one of the intelligence community's most prized tools.

"The only reason to use classification to limit who sees a transcript is if the conversation is classified," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. "We know from the transcript that the conversation wasn't classified so the only reason to restrict access is to protect the president's corruption."

The whistleblower alleges that White House officials were directed by White House lawyers to remove the transcript, which is typically a compilation of notes from officials who listened to the call, from a system where these documents are usually stored and place it in the highly-classified system.

But who exactly ordered the move and why are among the most significant unanswered questions after Thursday's public testimony from the Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Perhaps even more demanding of a separate line of inquiry, according to former officials, is the whistleblower's allegation that the Zelensky call transcript was "not the first time" White House officials had taken such a step.

"According to White House officials I spoke with, this was 'not the first time' under this Administration that a Presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information," reads the whistleblower complaint.

The shift of the Zelensky transcript onto the system that is used for highly-sensitive classified material prompted some White House officials to raise concerns that it would be an abuse of that system, according to the whistleblower.

The allegation of potential abuse of this highly-classified system also could undercut Maguire's argument that the nature of the whistleblower complaint was outside the purview of the intelligence community, one former official said, a determination that led to DNI's standoff with Congress over turning over the complaint.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in an interview with MSNBC Thursday night that his committee has the "authority" and "jurisdiction" to investigate the issue.

"Here is another irony today," Schiff said. "That is the Department of Justice opinions say that the director of national intelligence doesn't have jurisdiction here because this doesn't involve intelligence, this involves foreign interference in our elections. That should come as a revelation to the director of national intelligence that he doesn't have jurisdiction."

"But more than that, where do they hide this stuff? They hide it with a covert information files in this super secret computer system that's marked for classified intelligence information," Schiff added.

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