Top Secret

Photo by Craig Whitehead | Unsplash


It was a cold and rainy February evening at Andrews Air Force Base when I deplaned from the Air Force Gulfstream III. It was the last year of the Reagan Administration, and I had the privilege to have been an active-duty military officer serving in the White House during this period.  It had been a long and grueling trip and I just wanted to get home.  My car was parked in the lot adjacent to the Andrews passenger terminal and I could be home in Annapolis in less than 30 minutes.


However, I was carrying highly classified (known as “code-word”) material in my briefcase. For an instant, I thought that I would simply go home and see my two young children before they went to bed. The next morning, I thought, I would go to the White House at my usual ungodly hour, deposit the material in my safe and no one would be the wiser. Instead, however, I drove to my office in the basement of the White House that dreary night to properly safeguard the material. Yet again, I would arrive home long after my kids were in bed.


This is not a heroic tale.  I did nothing other than what was required and what any other person in a similar position would have done.  Like everyone else in the government holding a high-level security clearance, I had been trained to safeguard these materials at all costs.


Government information is classified when it is deemed that its public exposure poses a threat to our national security. The highest level of classification is placed on material whose disclosure would pose a particularly grave threat to vital programs, technology, plans, policies, strategy, and, most particularly, to people.  Intelligence sources, methods, assets, and personnel are provided the utmost protection.


I worked with this type of material every day during my nearly 3.5 years on the White House staff and another 3.5 years as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.  For over 28 years, I was privileged to have held a Top Secret Clearance with Sensitive Compartmented Information access (TS/SCI). Such a clearance provides, on a “need-to-know” basis, access to our nation’s most sensitive national security and intelligence information.  Like many others, it was never far from my mind that if I mishandled any of this material, it would, at best be a career-ender or, at worst, result in potential prosecution.


Over the decades, it was not uncommon to hear of a military member facing court martial or a civilian employee being prosecuted over the mere mishandling of classified material. More egregious cases of individuals engaging in treason and espionage with foreign governments, sadly, have also made headlines.


Very few people know the full extent of the classified material alleged to have been seized during the August 8th search of Mar-a-Lago.  What we do know is that it has been asserted that, at least some, of the material was classified at the TS/SCI level. What we also know is that the former President has a well-established history of denigrating the intelligence community and has, on numerous occasions, displayed a disregard for the established norms regarding the handling of classified information.


We know that in February 2022 some 15 boxes of material subject to the Presidential Records Act and including some classified material, upon demand, were returned to the government from the former President’s home.  We also know that several months ago, Mr. Trump was served with a subpoena seeking additional records…including classified material.  A subpoena that was largely ignored.


Mr. Trump’s conduct, although troubling, is not surprising.  His manner of doing business is well understood by most Americans.  What is more shocking is the response of the overwhelming majority of GOP leaders, Senators, Members of Congress and commentators They have, largely, trivialized Trump’s alleged misconduct and many have attacked the FBI, the Justice Department, and anyone, of either party who might suggest that Trump and his staff be held to account.


Many of these GOP Senators and Members of Congress serve on committees and sub-committees associated with the armed services, foreign affairs, the intelligence community, and homeland security agencies and organizations.  As such, they routinely receive classified briefings up to and including TS/SCI.  This is an essential part of their jobs since they need to understand not only how sensitive programs are funded but also what they are doing operationally and why.


I and doubtless many of my former colleagues who have spent careers in the national security, intelligence, and homeland security communities are sickened by seeing so many of the people’s elected representatives acting in such an irresponsible manner. What is even more disgusting is the realization that the vast majority of them are motivated by two factors: the single-minded determination to remain in office and the naked terror associated with finding themselves at odds with the former President.


It is difficult to assess, at this point, where this will all eventually lead. Whether Trump is prosecuted or not may be beside the point.  The threat of violence from the most extreme members of his base remains a constant sub-current. As such, many of us may have to hold our collective noses if a decision is made to allow him to go unpunished rather than face the very real threat of significant bloodshed…or worse.


As a former Republican and GOP Presidential appointee, the hardest thing for me to deal with is not Trump’s apparent misconduct but rather it is to witness how so many members of today’s Republican Party seem so willing to join Trump in attacking our most basic democratic institutions.  For me, that’s the most heartbreaking part of this whole sorry mess.


Robert Kelly

A former Coast Guard JAG officer, he served in the Reagan White House Military Office as Special Assistant for Operations Policy. Following his leaving active duty, he was appointed General Counsel, Office of the Administration in the Executive Office of the President under President George H. W. Bush. He subsequently was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Drug Enforcement) also in the first Bush Administration. His private sector career was primarily focused as a corporate general counsel for technology companies serving the U.S. Intelligence Community. He was a founder and partner in CenTauri Solutions, LLC an intelligence community contractor that was acquired by Computer Sciences Corporation. He retired from the Coast Guard Reserve as a Captain with 10 years of active duty and 16 in the Reserve.


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