- Experts say it’s important to act swiftly to identify whether secret sources were compromised.
- Because human sources report on foreign adversaries, experts say their lives could be at risk.
- Experts say if sources or technology were revealed, information about adversaries could dry up.
WASHINGTON – As U.S. intelligence agencies gauge the potential damage from Donald Trump storing hundreds of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, hanging in the balance is the threat to foreign sources of information recruited sometimes over a period of years and at great cost.
The documents at Mar-a-Lago were among the country’s most closely held secrets, dealing with human sources of intelligence and information that was supposed to be returned to agencies that provided it. Human sources are typically foreign nationals who risk prison terms and execution for spying on their own governments.
While much attention is trained on whether the former president broke the law, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is assessing the potential security risks with the FBI to see what damage might have been done.
The risks of exposing the secrets can mean life or death. Past intelligence reviews found U.S. sources were executed after former CIA officer Aldrich Ames and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen passed documents dealing with human sources of intelligence to the Soviet Union or Russia.
Nobody has accused Trump of passing along secrets to foreign adversaries. But national security experts said even the notion the documents sat outside secure locations for 18 months could prompt agencies to pull intelligence sources from foreign countries or cut off contact as a precaution.
David Priess, a former CIA officer who presented the President’s Daily Brief, which provides a summary of high-level information and analysis about national security issues, said the investigation would seek to determine who may have had access to the secrets and whether any intelligence sources or methods were compromised. The investigation might find no secrets were lost. But in the worst case, the government might have to remove somebody from their clandestine post or stop using some spying technology.
“This is not a joke,” said Priess, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets.” “Ultimately, lives could be at stake.”
Investigators will try to nail down as firmly as possible whether information in the Mar-a-Lago documents was revealed to foreign adversaries, experts said.
“The intelligence community is made up of people that when they smell flowers, they ask where is the funeral. We’re generally worst-case-scenario type of people in the absence of evidence,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year intelligence official who was the senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden. “The intelligence community could potentially be relocating assets as we speak or at a minimum telling assets to lay low.”
Hundreds of classified documents from Mar-a-Lago will be scrutinized
Security experts said the classified documents appeared to be handled carelessly as Trump stored more than 300 classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Documents typically locked in a safe in a secure location were mingled with magazines and even clothing in a basement storeroom and in Trump’s office, the FBI says.
Even without accusing anyone of intentionally passing along secrets to foreign adversaries, security experts warn the documents could have been exposed to Mar-a-Lago staffers or spies who could have gained access to the resort.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is assessing the risks. Pfeiffer, who directs the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University, said that as part of that review FBI counterintelligence agents must conduct a thorough investigation to see what might have been revealed to adversaries.
While it is crucial that any damage assessment be done swiftly, Carl Ghattas, a former executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said the potential compromise of human sources would add new “urgency” to the effort.
“Ideally, we want to make contact with the individual (source) in person, if that was possible,” said Ghattas, emphasizing that he was speaking generally and had no knowledge of what might have been recovered in the Mar-a-Lago search.
“You want to make sure that the individual is in a safe place, but that person may not be easily accessible depending on location,” Ghattas said. “We take relationships with human sources very seriously; they are relationships built on trust developed over days, weeks, months and years. Any compromise could be seen as a violation of that trust. And the last thing you want is to put someone in jeopardy.”
Ghattas said a collateral risk, beyond exposing people to possible harm, is that intelligence breaches may send a signal to other potential sources, including law enforcement agencies and foreign intelligence services, that their information won’t be adequately protected.
“It can cause (potential sources) to question whether they should come forward,” he said.
In the past year, the federal government has recovered hundreds of documents with classification markings from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, the most recent batch coming from the August search of the Florida property. They’ve include dozens of confidential, secret and top-secret documents.
Michael Patrick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired former CIA officer, said generally speaking the documents wouldn’t reveal the human sources because policymakers are provided with information rather than the sources of the information. For example, a document could detail what Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing in Ukraine but not how the information was obtained, he said.
“Generally, it doesn’t reveal – and it shouldn’t ever reveal – to the folks who are reading it where it came from. It’s about the information,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy said the CIA, which tends to handle the most human intelligence, and other agencies go to great lengths to safeguard their sources. After a potential breach of information, officials investigate whether sources were revealed and whether they need to move them from their home countries.
Human sources of intelligence need to be protected because they are typically foreigners risking their own lives spying on their own government, Pfeiffer said.
“They’re breaking their own laws,” Pfeiffer said. “If they get caught, they’re either going to go to jail or they’re going to probably be killed or kicked out of the country.”
Short of evacuating compromised sources, options include cutting off contact temporarily, Pfeiffer said. If a foreign government detains a U.S. asset, the source could give up the names of U.S. contacts.
Mulroy said highly sensitive documents dealing with human sources are generally tracked and logged, with a relatively small number of people granted access. The folders should have serial numbers so intelligence agencies know what the documents contained, even if the folders are empty, he said.
“They don’t just print stuff and give it out and don’t know where it is,” Mulroy said. “Depending on what was recovered and what was not recovered – empty folders, for example – there would be a considerable counterintelligence effort to determine why this information was allegedly stored outside of a SCIF,” or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.
Suspicious activity at Mar-a-Lago occurred before the document storage was revealed
The alarm among national security experts is partly because Mar-a-Lago is a sprawling resort where members, guests or staffers could have rummaged around for the classified documents.
The club, which hosts weddings and other special events, has a beach, pool and landscaped gardens. The 17-acre estate has a mansion with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms, according to the FBI affidavit that called for a search of everywhere not occupied or rented by members of the club.
Foreign intelligence services tend to recruit service workers such as cleaners, gardeners and waiters, according to intelligence experts. U.S. agents have the capability to enter a room, copy documents and leave without a trace, so adversaries are presumed to be able to accomplish that, too, Pfeiffer said.
Mar-a-Lago has had suspicious run-ins in the past.
Two Chinese nationals were convicted of trying to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago while Trump was president. Yujing Zhang was sentenced to eight months in jail for unlawful entry in a restricted building and making false statements after Secret Service agents discovered her roaming around Mar-a-Lago in March 2019.
Zhang “lied to practically everyone she encountered in the United States” and was found with numerous electronics in her purse, including a cellphone in a Faraday bag that blocks signals such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, according to prosecutors.
Trump brought the documents to Florida after leaving the White House in January 2021. In October 2021, The New York Times reported the CIA acknowledged that dozens of informants have been killed or compromised in recent years.
Trump’s lawyers contend there is no evidence he gave the documents to anyone.
In worst intelligence lapses, US sources have been killed
The costs to the U.S. could include lost intelligence and sources that took years to cultivate. A breach also could discourage sources from stepping forward and cooperating.
“It could mean that other sources we have may go: ‘Maybe I’m going to hold off for a little while because I saw what just happened. You told me the stuff I gave you, you were going to protect with your lives, and now you’re telling me it’s laying around in the basement of a golf resort in Florida. Maybe I don’t want to talk to you any more,’” Pfeiffer said. “Others may not want to talk.”
The Justice Department hasn’t revealed what the classified documents contained. But presidents tend to get the highest-level information.
“Odds are what the president is seeing is some of the most sensitive stuff that is out there,” Pfeiffer said. “Run-of-the-mill intelligence is not necessarily the stuff you’re going to be leaving with the president or that he’s going to say, ‘Hey, I want to read this a little more.’ It’s probably the most sensitive stuff.”
Priess said the documents wouldn’t have been marked top-secret “if there were not the potential for exceptionally grave damage to national security.” Court cases described incidents when sensitive information was revealed and sometimes people “have died,” he said.
Dale Watson, a former top FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence official, said initial damage assessments related to security breaches typically take only days to complete. But more definitive examinations can take months.
“You want to move very, very quickly,” Watson said, referring to the elevated stakes when human sources are put at possible risk.
Though some of the classified documents seized from Trump’s Florida estate were marked as containing information from confidential informants, the nature of the information has not been made public, and Watson said the mere presence of the material does not necessarily indicate that actual human sources were indeed compromised.
During his FBI tenure, which covered the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 attacks, such classified reports did not contain specific references to individual sources such that they could be immediately identified by name or location when shared with executive branch officials, including the president.
The president can request that such information be divulged, but Watson said that was rare. During post-9/11 White House briefings, Watson said, President George W. Bush never asked for such information.
“He (Bush) never asked me for a name,” Watson said. “We don’t withhold that information, but we limited access by a strict need-to-know standard.”
A damage assessment, Watson said, would nevertheless consider whether unsecured classified records contained enough information that could lead to human or even technical sources.
In some cases, intelligence officials will learn that sources have been compromised when information abruptly stops flowing or when the informants “start getting picked up.”
The government might not issue statements about the investigation’s progress, other than filings in court cases. But as with subpoenas in other cases, Priess said the people who are questioned might reveal themselves as witnesses who had access to the storage room or Trump’s office at Mar-a-Lago.
Estimating the length of the investigation is difficult because of uncertainties about what secrets were at risk. But the investigation could be lengthy because dozens of documents were at risk and documents were unsecured for 18 months.
“All I know is, it won’t be quick,” Priess said.
Ames, Hanssen illustrate worst cases
The risk of exposing human intelligence sources can be lethal, as revealed in the spy cases of Ames and Hanssen.
Ames, a 30-year CIA officer, pleaded guilty in 1994 to giving secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia that led to the execution of 10 CIA and FBI intelligence sources at the height of the Cold War, according to a summary of the case by the Justice Department inspector general.
Ames represented “the costliest breach of security in CIA history,” according to a report by William Webster, a former CIA and FBI director. Ames revealed more than 100 covert operations and betrayed more than 30 operatives spying for Western intelligence services, according to the report.
Ames said he routinely carried shopping bags full of classified documents out of the office, according to a Senate report about the case.
“In a statement read to the court at the time the plea agreements were entered, Ames admitted having compromised ‘virtually all Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services known to me’ and having provided to the Soviet Union and to Russia a ‘huge quantity of information on United States foreign, defense and security policies,’” the report said.
Ames acknowledged engaging in espionage from 1985 to 1994. He is serving a life sentence in Indiana.
“Within a matter of months, virtually its entire stable of Soviet agents had been imprisoned or executed,” the Webster report said. “The CIA was left virtually to start from scratch, uncertain whether new operations would meet the same fate as its old ones.”
Hanssen, a former FBI supervisory special agent, acknowledged engaging in espionage for 22 years, passing secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia 40 times, in what was “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history,” according to the Webster report.
Hanssen turned over 6,000 pages of classified information and 26 diskettes of “extraordinary importance and value,” according to the report. He would simply “grab the first thing (he) could lay (his) hands on” before he headed to one drop with his Russian agents, according to the report.
At least three human sources among dozens he identified were executed, according to an inspector general’s report on the case.
“In the absence of any evidence, you have to assume the worst-case scenario,” Pfeiffer said. “It could put a real dark cloud over some of these assets.”