Editor’s note: Beth Sanner was the former Deputy Director of the National Intelligence Service for Military Intelligence, overseeing elements that coordinate and lead the collection, analysis, and oversight of programs across the intelligence community. In this role, she also served as the president’s intelligence briefing. She is a professor in the Applied Labs on Intelligence and Security at the University of Maryland and a National Security Analyst for CNN. Her opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more of her opinion on CNN.
Recent revelations that both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump kept classified materials in secure and unauthorized locations while not in government have left many wondering, ‘How did this happen? Was it?” I began to ask.
It certainly requires a bipartisan effort to answer that question (and others) and establish rigorous record keeping in the White House. But even then, unless another underlying problem is addressed, more sensitive material may be discovered “outside the network” in the future.
The mountain of classified material flowing around the White House and other national security agencies and departments presents an inherent vulnerability that no amount of denunciations or reformed procedures can fix. As a former employee of the White House National Security Council (NSC), I can attest to the fact that there was no closed, centralized process to track this paperwork. Also, such efforts are ineffective.
Papers move and most of the time no one realizes they are missing unless or when they are found.
So where did this pile of classified paper come from? Let’s take another look at the White House. Here, it is routine and essential for staff to exchange confidential documents with each other and with the president.
NSC staff regularly prepare binders of confidential documents to inform policy discussions, interactions with foreign leaders, and international travel. National security advisers, White House chiefs of staff, and senior NSC officials all provide sensitive material to the president during scheduled meetings, sometimes on the fly. The Intelligence Community provides classified analysis, charts, and maps. In the White House Situation Room, hard-copy intelligence reports on classified intelligence, diplomatic intelligence and policy proposals are delivered throughout his day. These scenes play out in all agencies and departments concerned with national security alike.
With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine how sensitive information can be exfiltrated even in the most innocent of circumstances. Paper cannot be hacked, but it can be mixed with unclassified material, misfiled, overlooked, or taken away, intentionally or unintentionally. This creates the potential for sensitive information to be read by someone who encounters it. Worse, it could be lost, with unknown consequences, and known to foreign intelligence agencies.
This was one of my concerns when I oversaw the production and distribution of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) for over three years, including my duties as Trump’s intelligence officer. After our briefing, would the classified material he asked to keep be confused with the newspapers and magazines that famously littered the table in his private office? or processed by unidentified personnel?
The revelation that classified pages were found among documents planning his son’s funeral at Biden’s Delaware home, and that classified materials were found mixed with Trump’s personal effects, justifies my concerns. It reinforces We don’t yet know the full paperwork track for these cases, but it’s safe to say that the paperwork is a mess, especially in the last feverish sweep of the presidential administration.
The amount of classified documents in the White House must be reduced to reduce the likelihood of accidental or malicious deletion of classified information. This means we’ve begun moving the distribution of confidential and confidential materials to tablets such as the iPad and Surface Go, offering greater security and accountability. Just like paper, tablets can be misplaced or mishandled, but by applying simple tools like controlled network access, passwords, biometrics, and embedding timed wipeout programs, you can Reduce the risk of unauthorized individuals and hackers accessing sensitive information.
This is possible because intelligence agencies have been creating PDBs since 2012 for tablet distribution to presidents and senior national security officials. Other reports. These briefers, primarily using tablets, spread throughout Washington to provide information to the most senior decision makers.
Receiving information on your tablet doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. In fact, the PDB Tablet interface is cutting edge and sophisticated, and with some backend development and support, it’s very adaptable. Who wouldn’t want a device that could provide seamless updates, organization of material from policy proposals to interactive maps, and the ability to annotate with a stylus or keyboard? I think we will be able to adopt tablet use very quickly on a large scale.
Paper still has its uses. Of course, for practical reasons there can and should be exceptions to this digital transition. (For example, some large maps are easier to digest on paper, but highlighting and extensively annotating a physical copy of the document is easier for many people.) It remains a process.) Copy material.
The barriers to moving more sensitive material to the tablet environment are steep in some respects, but mostly cultural. This is based on ingrained practices and a lack of demand from baby boomer-biased leadership. Let me just say a few words to my colleagues. We have technology and it’s better than you think.
A little-known 2019 Trump administration mandate ordered all government agencies to switch to digital records management by the end of 2022. This initiative, like other previous initiatives aimed at reducing paperwork for federal employees and the general public, will allow simultaneous printing and circulation of paper. Cultural change takes time and investment, but it must increase the urgency of what matters most: protecting the most sensitive and confidential materials.
There is no better time and place than to start right now, and at the epicenter of the current controversy, the White House.