EVENT RECAP: “Keeping Secrets”


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On September 20, 2022, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted its first in-person event in over two years to discuss the importance and legalities of Keeping Secrets. The panel featured Mary DeRosa, a professor from practice at Georgetown University Law and Co-Director of the Global Law Scholars Program. Ms. DeRosa also served as the Deputy Assistant and Deputy Counsel to the President and National Security Council Legal Adviser in the Obama Administration. John Fitzpatrick, Chief Security Officer at Ball Aerospace and former Senior Director for Records Access and Information Security management in The White House. The final panel member was our own Larry Pfeiffer,  a distinguished 32-year career in the US Intelligence Community included stints as senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief of staff to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Moderating the event was former Deputy Director – and twice Acting Director – of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Michael Morell. The evening began with opening remarks from Schar School Dean Mark Rozell and the Hayden Center’s namesake founder General Michael Hayden.   

The panel opened by illuminating the audience as to why information is classified and how the president receives this type of information. Mr. Pfeiffer detailed the classification process, what each level of the taxonomy means, and the reasoning behind those classification levels – it often boils down to “the source of information.” After untangling the “alphabet soup” attached to classification markings, the discussion turned to the cadence with which the president would receive classified information. A president sets the rhythm for which they receive information and the medium (analog or digital) with which they will digest the data points the IC, and their advisors believe is the most pertinent information. When prodded, if presidents ask to keep the material, an explicit “on rare occasions” was given, and that would be detailed in the documents handling log. During Mr. Fitzpatrick’s time serving in The White House in records information security, the staff secretary office dealt with the preponderance of records keeping and flows of data. He described them as the “inbox traffic controllers.” Ultimately, the president’s access to classified information is determined by their working style, but what they see and how the data moves through the grounds of The White House is recorded. 

After detailing the classification process and how the executive obtains classified information, the panelist turned the conversation to Presidential Records Act. Upon entry into The White House for their first day of work, all employees receive briefings on “what constitutes something that needs to be preserved” and the tension between classified information and records that be turned over to the National Archives. Ms. DeRosa detailed her time serving in the White House during the beginning and end of an administration, describing the “clearing out” process that occurs when a new president arrives. In her words, a comprehensive process details what information goes to the archives and what information is returned to the appropriate agency or destroyed. A surprising revelation was shared at this point that the president himself may not receive these executive briefings and does not hold a security clearance. 

Eventually, the conversation turned to former President Trump and the revelations about storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Mr. Pfeiffer put on his “intelligence collection hat” to detail the host of potential sources of information a foreign agency could tap into at the resort to steal possible secrets. Additionally, he shared there is not a secured facility within the estate to store classified information, and it must be “assumed that this information was compromised.” A detailed investigation needs to be conducted by counterintelligence professionals.  

 Finally, the declassification authorities of the president were explained by Ms. DeRosa, who laid out the president’s powers to decide who can see specific information. Additionally, she explained what rules and laws must be followed by former presidents. While declassification authorities do rest with the chief executive, a precedent is set that heads of agencies are consulted to determine what information should be shared. All panelists agreed there needs to be a “tightening up of the ship” through additional statutes to detail the systems for protecting classified documents as the president leaves office.

Full video of the event can be found at the Hayden Center’s YouTube channel.

Josh Pearson is a student in the Masters in International Security program at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. In addition to his academic work, he works as an open-source analyst and is a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, where he serves as an Information Operations Officer.