September 30, 2022

The following is a transcript of a discussion with Robert Costa and Michael Morell that aired Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”


MAJOR GARRETT: 

Good morning everyone. Welcome to “Face the Nation.” Margaret is out and we hope in the final stages of recovery from COVID-19. August has been, there’s really no other way to say it, an extraordinary month here in Washington. And one of our tasks today is to work to understand the legal and national security implications of Friday’s release of a redacted affidavit outlining the justification behind the FBI’s retrieval of classified documents stored at former president trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. To help us, CBS News Chief Election and Campaign correspondent, Robert Costa, is back from West Palm Beach, Florida and we’ve also brought in Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, now a CBS News national security contributor. Gentlemen, good morning. Bob, I want to start with you. Outline for the audience what you see as the potential legal peril for the former president. 

CBS NEWS CHIEF ELECTION AND CAMPAIGN CORRESPONDENT ROBERT COSTA:

The affidavit from the government spells it out. There have been tensions between the Trump legal team and federal investigators for months about his handling of classified material. The affidavit mentions possible obstruction. It also mentions how Trump had in possession, in their view, documents that were highly sensitive that could even deal with information derived from human intelligence sources and this led to them to have an FBI search of the property, Mar-a-Lago, just weeks ago. 

MAJOR GARRETT: 

And there is a political dimension to this of course. How do you assess that? And you were down in West Palm Beach for the entire week. What is the atmosphere there? 

COSTA:

It injects uncertainty into the midterm elections. For Republicans, this is the standard bearer for their party, even though he is former president Donald Trump, he is eyeing a 2024 presidential bid. So many candidates in the party are echoing his version of politics. Now to have him facing legal challenges across the board, not just in Florida, adds that uncertainty to the discussion. 

MAJOR GARRETT:

And one thing that happened recently, a judge reviewing a request from the former president for a special master put in a legal document that this judge is possibly inclined to do so. Does that change anything from your vantage point? 

COSTA:

To be determined at this point. We’ll watch in the coming days whether a so-called special master or neutral party is appointed by a Florida federal judge to review and return the evidence. They have asked the government to provide a list of information. It could move in that direction, but let’s remember, the government already has a filter team in place at the justice department reviewing what they collected weeks ago. So this is a late entry into the legal discussion. 

MAJOR GARRETT:

Mike Morell, evaluate the affidavit for our audience, please. 

FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE CIA & CBS NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR MICHAEL MORELL:

Major, I had two reactions when I read it. The first was the fact that these documents were mixed in with unclassified documents. You had classified documents in the vast majority of the boxes. That suggested to me sloppiness in the handling of classified documents at the White House. The two White Houses that I know best, the Bush White House and the Obama White House, there were very rigorous and strict protocols with regard to the handling of classified information, where it was records were kept, retrievals were made. That’s what normally happens. That didn’t happen in this case, it sounds to me. The second thing that jumped out at me were the markings, HCS, human control system, and SI, special intelligence. Human control system means information from CIA spies. And special intelligence means information from technical operations of the national security agency. This is the- this is the most sensitive material of the United States intelligence community. 

MAJOR GARRETT:

So the next natural question seems to me is, how vulnerable to compromise were the documents you were just talking about and were outlined in this affidavit? 

MORELL:

So I think they were vulnerable. Even at the White House, since they seem to have been mishandled at the White House as well, right, we have to look at that as well Mar-a-Lago. And as the damage assessment goes forward, I think they need to look at both of those places. Not everyone at the white house has a top secret clearance. So you have to worry about who had access to those documents, who didn’t have clearance to do so. In terms of the vulnerability from foreign intelligence services, a little context. If you look back at the history of espionage in the United States, you’ll see a number of Americans who were charged and convicted of espionage. And when you look at how long they spied before they were caught and you do all of that math, what you-what you learn is that at any given moment in time, there are on average four Americans spying for foreign intelligence services without us knowing it at the time. And those are the ones we ultimately caught. So there’s a lot of spying going on in Washington, right? And if you’re a foreign intelligence service and you want to target the United States government, what’s the number one place you want to target? The White House. 

MAJOR GARRETT:

You mentioned your experience with the Bush and Obama White Houses. There’s a procedure inside the building, obviously, for classified and secured documents. Is there a similar process off site, for any president? Meaning at a place like Mar-a-Lago or for President Biden right now when he goes back to Delaware? 

MORELL:

So there are — there are things called SCIFs, sensitive compartmented information locations, that are actually approved for holding classified information. I had one in my attic when I was the deputy director. And you’re allowed to hold classified there but these are places that are approved by security officers, right? 

MAJOR GARRETT:

And if they’re not, then they don’t follow procedures and they may not follow federal law? 

MORELL:

Correct. And you-and you may be at risk in those cases of mishandling classified information. 

MAJOR GARRETT:

And Mike, this is a question that circles around this relentlessly. Is there a formalized process for a president to declassify classified information? 

MORELL:

Unfortunately not. There are statutes that allow the president to declassify information. The Supreme Court has upheld those statutes a number of times. But those statutes do not outline a step-by-step process for the president to do so. So it’s murky. I actually know a case from the Bush White House where President Bush declassified part of the 2002 Iraq WMD national intelligence estimate so Scooter Libby could use that information at his grand jury testimony. And President Bush did that without ever telling the intelligence community. So presidents can do this, right? But there’s an appropriate way to do it and the appropriate way to do it is to paper it over, right? To have the president sign a document that says I hereby declassify this information. 

MAJOR GARRETT:

With important reporting and context, Bob Costa, Mike Morell, thanks very much.

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