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FBI finds information about a foreign country's nuclear program in Mar-a-Lago search

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We're learning more about the documents seized by the FBI while searching the former President Donald Trump's Florida estate. The Washington Post says some of America's most closely guarded secrets were among those found last month at Mar-a-Lago. The Post report also says a document on a foreign nation's nuclear weapons program was recovered. We're joined now by someone who knows the intelligence world very well, David Preiss, a former intelligence officer and daily intelligence briefer at the CIA. David, The Post says some of the documents contain information so secret that only a handful of government officials would even have access. What kind of information are we talking about that requires that kind of secrecy?

DAVID PRIESS: Yeah, that's true of a lot of very specialized sources and methods information or information that was very difficult to obtain on what the intelligence business calls hard targets. These are the countries or terrorist groups or other foreign actors whom have extensive denial and deception programs to inhibit intelligence collection or are just very closed societies and therefore hard to penetrate and get essential information from. The whole purpose of those SAPS, those protective compartments, is to ensure that very few people see that information so that the risk of disclosure stays very low and that method of intelligence collection can continue into the future.

MARTINEZ: And when you say hard to obtain, are you talking very dangerous?

PRIESS: It often can be in two ways. One way is if it's human collection, the traditional spy craft - you're trying to recruit someone who is close to a foreign leader or who has access to another country's nuclear program. That person would be at high risk if their identity were exposed or if even the other country knew that there was collection going on with someone in a position like that. There's also the danger of technical collection - that is, listening in on communications of another government. If that government knows that their communications are being listened to in some way, that their own measures have been defeated, then they can take countermeasures and prevent that collection in the future. And that could put at risk U.S. personnel overseas, whether diplomatic or military.

MARTINEZ: And they might still be in a vulnerable spot. What is the risk to national security if that kind of information gets out?

PRIESS: Yeah, it comes directly and indirectly. The most direct is, of course, the risk to an intelligence asset, as I mentioned, or the risk to U.S. personnel overseas. The indirect, however, is probably larger, especially over the long term, with this many documents potentially being exposed, which is the damage to U.S. intelligence collection in a variety of areas. It could also be that there's information the U.S. is seeking that is being reported in these documents. So it becomes evident that the United States is interested in certain topics that perhaps foreign governments did not know the United States was trying to collect on to enhance its national security. And once a foreign government knows that, it becomes harder and harder to get that information and therefore harder to inform national security decision-makers. They operate in a greater area of uncertainty in future decisions if their intelligence channel is limited.

MARTINEZ: David, when you were handling classified information in your role at the CIA, what kind of precautions did you have to take?

PRIESS: We had many precautions. First of all, there are many personnel precautions, which is everybody goes through extensive background investigation, polygraphs, frequent reinvestigations in order to hold a security clearance, especially at a top-secret SCI level. So to see even those documents before you get to compartments, you have extensive background checks and things. Of course, this is not true of a president. A president has a de facto security clearance simply by being elected under the Constitution of the United States. There is no formal security clearance for a president.

But then you actually have physical measures that are taken for documents, such as the kind we saw in the Department of Justice photo. Those measures include secure storage. You look at those documents only in a secure facility. When moving between secure facilities, you transport them in a safe way. That can include locked bags. It can include multiple layers of defense, meaning double wrapping tapes. It can involve armed escorts for certain kinds of documents. I know that when I took the president's daily brief into the White House, I had a driver take me right up there. I had a locked bag to make sure that the documents I had were secure, and that was walking into the White House itself. Those documents did not come out until I was in the office of the national security adviser.

MARTINEZ: One more thing quickly, David - so when a president has documents, classified documents, do people know that that person - that the president has them, or can the president just walk down the office and go grab them?

PRIESS: In a normally functioning White House, yes. The issue here is we do not know the exact paper flow within the Trump White House and whether all the normal protocols were followed.

MARTINEZ: David Priess is a former CIA intelligence officer. He's also the publisher and chief operating officer at Lawfare. David, thanks a lot.

PRIESS: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.