The Case of Nghia Pho Illustrates Trump’s Compromise of National Security

In 2018 Trump’s Department of Justice prosecuted a man named Nghia Pho, he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. What did Mr. Pho do? In the words of the Department of Justice (cough, cough): “Pho removed massive troves of highly classified national defense information without authorization and kept it at his home.” Throughout this article, whenever I use the word “Pho” I’d like for you to substitute “Trump” in, because the cases are that close.

There was no allegation that Pho did this intending to compromise United States security. Pho did this simply because he wanted to catch up on his work at home. Like many of us he brought his work home with him. Unlike most of us, his work involved highly classified materials. However, there is no evidence Pho was disloyal to his country.

Even so, the government said Pho “placed at risk our intelligence community’s capabilities and methods, rendering some of them unusable.” Given Pho’s benign use of the documents described above, why would the government say intelligence was rendered unusable?

The answer to that is detailed in a letter from Admiral Michael Rogers, Trump’s Director of the National Security Agency at the time, submitted by the DOJ to support the sentencing of Pho. Admiral Rogers concluded that:

“Mr. Pho retained classified information outside of properly secured spaces and by doing so caused very significant and long-lasting harm to the NSA, and consequently to the national security of the United States . . . Mr Pho’s illegal conduct violated the fundamental principle that classified information must be protected and maintained in properly secured spaces at all times . . . His exposure of classified programs and information by retaining them at his residence and on personal electronic devices resulted in articulable harm to intelligence gathering initiatives used by NSA.” [Reminder: remember to substitute “Pho” with “Trump”]

You see, the mere improper removal of classified materials from “properly secured spaces” has ramifications in the intelligence community as to how that information can now be used and whether the sources for it can be trusted in the future. The intelligence community must at least account for the risk that it was compromised. Again, in the words of Director of the NSA:

“By removing such highly classified materials outside of secure space. Mr. Pho subjected those materials to compromise. It is a fundamental mandate in the Intelligence Community that classified material must be handled and stored in very specific and controlled ways. If classified material is not handled or stored according to strict rules, then the government cannot be certain that it remains secret. Once the government loses positive control over classified material, the government must often treat the material as compromised and take remedial actions as dictated by the particular circumstances.”

Admiral Rogers noted that Pho’s actions “left the NSA with no choice but to abandon certain important initiatives, at great economic and operational cost.” Rogers points out that the NSA had to, at great time and expense, determine what documents were potentially compromised diverting “critical resources away from NSA’s intelligence-gathering mission.”

This aspect of Trump’s damage to national security is rarely discussed. The agents now assessing the damage to our intelligence from what Trump did are not engaged in the intelligence gathering work they were hired to do. Who knows what will be missed, or its consequences to America.

What kind of “initiatives” at great “operational cost” might our government have to abandon because of what Trump did? As but one potential example, some of the classified material Trump retained involved “HUMINT” for “human intelligence.” The intelligence community may have to decide those human assets must be withdrawn, or their information discounted as possibly spoiled by the bad guys converting them to a counter-spy. Rogers likened it to “interrupting a team of surgeons in the middle of an operation to determine if the sterility of a tool used in the procedure had been compromised.” Perhaps the tool has to be completely replaced, but human intelligence assets are generally not as replaceable as surgical tools.

Rogers points to “international partners who share sovereign secrets with us.” Rogers suggests this comparatively low level employee’s casual treatment of classified information might make them less willing to share information with the United States. Knowing that an American President has done basically the same thing wouldn’t they be many times more reticent to do so?

In some ways what Pho did was far less malevolent to national security interests. There is no evidence he lost documents, whereas Trump has the notoriously empty folders with highly classified markings on them. Pho’s home was a private residence, not a country club with scores of employees and guests milling about. What’s more, Pho didn’t lie about it. When confronted he admitted what he had done and worked with national intelligence officials to mitigate the damage. Pho assisted in the process of determining what he had taken, and might be compromised. To the detriment of his own legal position, Pho remained loyal to this nation.

In 2018 Pho was convicted and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. He did not receive a Trump pardon. That was reserved for the likes of Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and others arguably less loyal to this nation than Nghia Pho.

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Retired lawyer & Army vet in The Villages of Florida. Lifelong: Republican (pre-Trump), Constitution buff, science nerd & dog lover. Twitter: @KeithDB80