The political news these days is dominated by two names, Biden and Trump. Because of his many criminal entanglements, Donald Trump wins the prize for the most coverage. But there are other names that are unfamiliar to many readers, and their stories may help clarify your thinking about the issue of mishandling classified documents.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Birchum recently made the news when he was sentenced to three years in prison for storing classified documents at various locations. A 30-year veteran of the Air Force, Birchum entered into a plea agreement, under which he admitted to having kept documents labeled “top secret,” “secret” or “confidential.”
Birchum admitted that he had knowingly removed over 300 documents from his office and stowed them in his overseas officer’s headquarters, at his home and in a storage pod in his driveway. More than 30 of those files were marked “top secret,” the highest level of classification.
A thumb drive contained 135 files marked as “classified,” and a hard drive had 10 files that contained information marked as “secret.” Birchum had a spotless record during his decades of military service, which made the sentencing that much harder for the average citizen to comprehend.
Another new name in the news was Nghia Pho, a former software developer at the National Security Agency. Pho took troves of highly classified information out of a secure location and kept them at home. As reported two weeks ago by the HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery, Pho, a Vietnamese immigrant who was working on his English, said he was falling behind his peers in promotions and wanted to catch up on work at home.
Pho received a five-and-a-half-year sentence in federal prison for trying to keep pace with his fellow workers. What was most significant was the reaction of the NSA director, Navy Adm. Michael Rodgers. Rodgers, an appointee of President Obama, was kept on in his job by President Trump until his retirement.
In a harsh three-page letter to U.S. District Court Judge George Russell III, Rodgers wrote, “While criminal conduct involving matters of national security may come in different forms and some of the harms may not be immediately apparent, the retention of classified information is no less damaging to the national security of our country and our ability to protect and defend the Nation against our adversaries.”
Rodgers concluded his letter, Bendery wrote, by calling Pho’s actions “a breach of trust” and indirectly telling the judge to prove he stands with the intelligence community with his sentencing. “Affirmation by this court of the cost to the women and men who have dedicated their lives to public service and who have maintained trusted stewardship of national defense information will send them a message of confidence and respect.”
The stories of Birchum and Pho are just two of many that are popping up in the news these days. Birchum apparently decided he should be the custodian of sensitive documents, and Pho did something genuinely stupid. This brings us to the case of Trump, who stands accused of obstruction of justice and violations of the Espionage Act.
The Trump accusations are so bewildering. Why didn’t he just turn over all of the classified documents that were requested when he was served with a subpoena? Why did he allegedly stonewall the prosecutors and lie about having any such papers in his possession? Why did he tell his counsel to deny having any additional sensitive papers at his Mar-a-Lago home?
Trump’s defenders have rushed to protect him by accusing the FBI and the Justice Department of “weaponizing” their powers against a political opponent. But Trump is no different from Birchum or Pho when it comes to the issue of holding onto documents that could aid our enemies.
Does being a former president exempt you from the same day in court that Birchum and Pho got? Add the name of recently arrested Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira to the roster of those who have been charged with the possession of secret documents.
Of course, Trump is entitled to a presumption of innocence. He will have his chance to tell his story, if he testifies in front of a jury. What is mystifying is why he finds himself in this position at all. And if found guilty, why should he be treated differently than Birchum and Pho?
Jerry Kremer was an Assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? firstname.lastname@example.org.