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How the White House Stores Documents | WSJ


– [Narrator] When a
president does anything, like, make a simple phone call, the Presidential Records Act
says it has to be recorded. Twitter DMs, sticky notes and all. Kelly Magsamen is a former National
Security Council official under both Presidents Bush and Obama. During her experience in the White House, every call by the president
included an involved process to keep all of this
information in the right place. – There are basically three
main systems that NSC staff use. First is the unclassified system, which we like to refer to as the low side. There is a secret system
which we call sipper, which is used essentially to communicate with State Department and Pentagon, people outside of the
National Security Council. And then there’s the top secret system that is used on day-to-day
basis by most of the NSC staff. And then there’s a separate, which you’re seeing in the press, codeword system and server
that is completely distinct, that most NSC staff have no access to, physical or otherwise. – [Narrator] In the
context of President Trump and his phone call with
the President of Ukraine, this is the important
detail to pay attention to. There are three normal and secure systems for most information. But one, as Magsamen described, Mission Impossible-level,
codeword-only system. Wall Street Journal reporting shows that system is where the rough transcript of this phone call ended up. And both former White House
and NSC officials are concerned that misclassification was used as a way to hide politically damaging information, and not national security information. The White House says that
they’re still grappling with the implications of the complaint. – The way that these
call memorandums work is every single sentence or paragraph carries a classification based
on whatever’s in it. So, when the President
picks up the phone and says, “Hi Vladimir, how are you doing today?” That’d be unclassified, ’cause it’s not containing
any classified information. Then the next paragraph could be something that’s at the confidential level, so for example, “Hi Vladimir, I wanted to get your opinion “on our latest trade agreement.” Even on a secret level,
secret is usually things that are highly sensitive, maybe you’re in the
middle of a negotiation, maybe there’s potential
discussion of military operations. Most presidential calls are classified at most really around the secret level. – [Narrator] From the
moment the President picks up the phone, to all of those
classifications being made, there are usually at least
three people listening in, transcribing everything they hear. Sometimes, NSC subject matter
experts are on the call too, like the NSC Director for
that particular country. They make up a unified draft that’s reviewed by officials
in the NSC Directorate and the White House Situation Room to refine, review for substance, classify and even just to spell check. It goes to the National
Security Advisor’s office for a final review and sign off, and after that it’s off to the Executive Secretary of
the National Security Council to be distributed to whomever is cleared and needs that information. – If the President of the
United States were discussing top secret codeword information
with a foreign leader, whoever is transcribing the
notes would not be transcribing it on a normal system, because codeword is our
tippy top, most secret intelligence programs. Very unlikely, if not impossible, that the President of the
United States is discussing codeword information with
a foreign counterpart. So to begin with, this is not
normal, it wouldn’t happen. But if he had been, it would’ve been on a
completely different system, and the people who are able to handle that information would have
to have special clearances. – [Narrator] Special clearances to just that one program being discussed. That system is so secure that
even if someone gets access, and is read into hypothetical
codeword alpha material, it doesn’t mean that they can
simply access other material about hypothetical codeword
beta on the same system. codeword clearance is as close
to total information lockdown as you can get. So if phone calls by the
President are classified at best, where in the process
did the Ukraine call go from being placed on the regular systems to the Mission Impossible-level
codeword systems? – I suspect that it was
treated as a normal call, the White House Situation
Room clearly produced the transcript, several people in the
NSC staff had a chance to review that transcript, so my guess is that the decision was made to put in on a codeword server at the National Security Advisor’s level, potentially the NSC Chief of Staff, kind of at the third rung of the process, and then that information was transferred to a codeword server. But that information was not codeword. – [Narrator] The White House
did not respond to comment on when the material was
put on the codeword server, but says that the justification
was to avoid more leaks. – The American public
has to have confidence in their national security
system and process. And there have been times in history where that trust has been broken. We saw this in the Iran-Contra affair where there was obfuscation of material, hiding of material from the
American public, lying about it. These classifications exist to protect, intelligence sources and methods are our biggest crown jewels, they are not meant to
protect political wrongdoing, corruption and certainly not meant to protect criminal activity. (dramatic music)

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