Any political adviser who could tell a presidential candidate what a voter would be thinking when that person stands in a voting booth next November would be worth their weight in gold. But no one can.
Most voters don’t think about national security when they step into the voting booth. They should, because one aspect of that issue is as clear an indicator as anyone can find of who can be trusted to perform the duties of the president.
One important part of a president’s job is to maintain the confidentiality of America’s secrets. Some presidents disclose secrets for political gain. Some try their best and still fail to keep the nation’s secrets. An untrustworthy few cavalierly expose America’s secrets to anyone with an Internet connection.
Lyndon Johnson exposed top secret information for political gain. The Lockheed SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft was developed amid intense security in the supersecret Skunk Works. Few people knew of its existence and one of them was Johnson. Facing a tough reelection in 1964 against conservative Barry Goldwater, and needing to look tougher on defense, Johnson gave a speech revealing the SR-71 to the world. When I worked for the company more than two decades later, some Skunk Works veterans were still fuming over that disclosure.
George W. Bush tried and failed to prevent The New York Times from publishing details of a top secret NSA surveillance program. He personally called The Times’ publisher to persuade him to spike the story. The publisher refused and the story was published the next day.
And then there was the Obama administration, with former Vice President Joe Biden fitting in comfortably as second-in-command.
On May 2, 2011, President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. He credited the action to a “small team of Americans.” That was the right way to do it.
Nine days later, Mr. Biden made a speech in which he said that the bin Laden operation was conducted by Navy SEALs. He did not name SEAL Team Six specifically, but once the SEALs were named, any intelligence agency (or terrorist network) could easily determine that it was Team Six. The location of their home base — and thus their families — has been one of the worst-kept secrets in the military. Mr. Biden’s remarks endangered them all.
Caring for the nation’s secrets is a mundane task at which the Obama administration — including Mr. Biden — failed utterly.
When Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, she regularly transmitted secret and top secret information over her unsecured private email system. We know, from previous reports, that some of that information was top secret, including “SI/TK” information and information about “SAP” programs.
“SI/TK” — Special Intelligence/Talent Keyhole — is the designation for special intelligence that is gathered by either reconnaissance aircraft (“Talent”) or spy satellites (“Keyhole.”) “SAPs” is the designation for Special Access Programs, which include presidentially-authorized covert operations involving spies and special operations forces that usually leave blood on the floor.
Nothing is more highly classified than SI/TK and SAP intelligence information.
As then-White House communications director Josh Earnest confirmed in 2015, Mr. Obama conferred with Mrs. Clinton over her private system. Mr. Obama reportedly used a pseudonym for that correspondence, indicating he knew it was improper.
We don’t know if Mr. Biden communicated with Mr. Obama and (or) Mrs. Clinton over that private system. But, as vice president, he was almost certainly privy to the communications between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. If he wasn’t privy to those communications and didn’t participate in them that is an indication he wasn’t trusted with such high-level secrets.
President Trump is no angel when it comes to protecting secrets, but his failures are miniscule in comparison. For example, in 2019, Mr. Trump posted a tweet that showed a photo, apparently taken by one of our spy satellites, of a failed Iranian missile launch. The tweet specified the site of the failed launch.
Tweeting a photo of a failed missile launch was unwise but put no American’s life in danger. Giving a speech crediting the SEALs with the bin Laden kill did.
Mr. Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community (IC) is shaky at best. He distrusts the IC, which is a natural but dangerous result of its illegal efforts to spy on him and his 2016 campaign. Mr. Trump seems unconcerned about that relationship. But if he is reelected, his second term’s success may largely depend on whether that relationship can be repaired.
We cannot expect Mr. Biden, whose famously loose thinking leads to about one gaffe a day, to keep the secrets that have to be entrusted to any president. That fact may reduce the intelligence community’s ability to inform a president Biden about the information needed to make correct decisions. Without current and accurate intelligence, policy making is merely guesswork.
Either Mr. Biden participated in the Obama White House’s and Cabinet’s misuse of classified information or he wasn’t trusted enough to even see it. If he participated in the Clinton emails, he is as guilty of making our most closely-held secrets vulnerable to foreign interception as were Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
In 2016 Mr. Biden said he doubted that Mrs. Clinton understood the “gravity” of using her personal email system. Does he?
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”