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What U.S. security risks could the Mar-a-Lago documents have created?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A court in Miami is answering the question of whether former President Donald Trump committed a crime by taking secret documents to Mar-a-Lago and obstructing government efforts to get them back. He has pleaded not guilty. A separate question, and one that might be harder to answer, is whether Trump's alleged actions hurt the United States. Glenn Gerstell was the general counsel of the NSA from 2015 to 2020, so he has a lot of experience with classified documents. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GLENN GERSTELL: Thanks. Delighted to be here.

SHAPIRO: When you read the full 37-count indictment, is there anything that specifically jumps out to you as particularly dangerous?

GERSTELL: Well, it's a 49-page indictment, and that certainly wasn't required, you know? The Department of Justice can - doesn't need to specify all this level of detail. And that level of detail is exactly what jumped out at me as being quite scary. There was a list of some 31 documents rated at the top-secret level in general, and some even more sensitive than that, that even in their brief description in the indictment made it clear that this was some of the nation's most sensitive secrets that were the subject of the indictment.

SHAPIRO: If a document that, for example, describes the military capabilities of an adversary or U.S. contingency planning for a war were disclosed to an adversary - like, what is the kind of harm that could do?

GERSTELL: So the very definition of top-secret is that it could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. That's why they're labeled top-secret. So in your case, if there was a document that revealed our nuclear capabilities or those of a - of an ally or even of a foreign adversary showing how much we know about them, you could imagine that that would cause a big change in the calculus of - in a possible war, if we ever got into a shooting war. On our end, we might have to spend millions of dollars changing code systems, changing weapons systems, fixing vulnerabilities that we thought an adversary didn't know about but now probably does. And so this could be unbelievably expensive and, more importantly, expose our troops to danger.

SHAPIRO: Is there a way to know whether that has happened, or does the intelligence community now just need to assume the worst-case scenario and, you know, change all the passwords or whatever the case may be?

GERSTELL: So that's the problem. On one hand, they will take a worst-case scenario. And as you can imagine, if you lost your keys to your house overnight and it had your address on it, then the next morning, you'd probably want to change your locks. You wouldn't want to take the risk even though you didn't know for sure that someone got hold of them. So the equivalent is true although the stakes are much higher for national security. If we think the risk of compromise is pretty low and the cost to fix it is pretty high, we'll take that into account. And the flip side is true, too, which is if we think there was indeed a risk of compromise and it involves the question of pulling a secret agent out of a foreign country for fear he or she is going to get caught, obviously, we're going to have a very, very low tolerance of - threshold for that.

SHAPIRO: And those seem like things the U.S. public may never be aware of, right?

GERSTELL: Absolutely. This is - a lot of this will be conducted in secret, and we don't want adversaries to know how much we know or don't know or what actions we're taking in response to this. I might add this isn't theoretical. During Trump's presidency, two Chinese nationals were actually apprehended at Mar-a-Lago wandering around. They were charged with unauthorized entry. One of them had on her possession five cellphone SIM cards, a bunch of cameras, nine thumb drives, thousands of dollars of cash, and claims she was just there for tourist reasons.

SHAPIRO: It's not how I travel as a tourist.

GERSTELL: Exactly. So you can imagine that the thousands of dollars of cash might be used to bribe a gardener or worker to get inside, etc., etc., and the cameras for obvious reasons. She served eight months in prison and was deported to China. And there was another Chinese national who was also apprehended. So this is not a theoretical issue at all.

SHAPIRO: When I look at the photos of the boxes and boxes of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, I wonder why this was on paper in the first place. If something that classified has to be put into print, why isn't it immediately shredded, incinerated after somebody's looked at it?

GERSTELL: Well, of course it should be. So if it isn't needed right away, it's shredded. And when I worked at the NSA, we had, you know, literally hundreds of classified documents sitting up on our desks every day, and at the end of the night, they were shredded and burned. Obviously, for presentation purposes, if you're going to a meeting, you're going to want a couple of documents to hand out. And famously, President Trump was interested in having pieces of paper in front of him - often with graphics. There are a number of anecdotes where he said at the end of classified meetings, can I keep this? And the CIA officer or his briefer said, well, I'd rather not. And he said, well, I'm the president. I'm going to take it. And so it's a little hard to deal with that.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, do you think even the intelligence community in secret will ever know for sure whether these documents and their disclosure caused harm to U.S. national security?

GERSTELL: Unless we see actual evidence of a change in adversary behavior - they plug up a network, spies get liquidated, etc. - we're not going to know for sure what the real consequences are. And even if one of those actions happened, we wouldn't know for sure that it was attributable to this particular compromise, if any. So at the end of the day, I suspect we're going to have to make some very costly decisions as to what to do based on a guess that some of these documents might well have been compromised. And we'll never know the answer.

SHAPIRO: Glenn Gerstell is former general counsel to the NSA. Thank you very much.

GERSTELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.