On July 25 there was a presumably important phone call between the president of the United States and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky. As you likely know there have been many moments of political or security interest since then with the same nation-state. Ukraine issues, maybe more so than during any other news cycles, has been bandied about the past couple weeks in the District. The July call, however, is particularly intriguing.
That call was unique among the other Ukraine correspondence, at least I assume that it was, because it did not follow the typical protocol of such conversations. Normally, whether the subject matter is protectable by higher classification or is of the more free-flowing nature, such diplomatic exchanges get memorialized through transcription. Additionally, if it is deemed to be of a classified, compartmentalizeable nature--think covert ops or other security imperatives--the call's transcript gets stored on a highly secured computer system with extremely limited access. News media, for example, aren't going to get their eyes on it. All presidential calls get stored on systems that are protected, but these especially sensitive calls have a higher place for posterity's sake. This is not new. The prior administration's calls were treated in the same manner: unclassified calls stored with some protection, and highly sensitive calls stored in the most stringent manner.
How often does the chat elevate to that level? One former national security adviser answered recently, "It's not impossible. It's very rare. Even when they are two leaders discussing classified information," it may not live up to that ultra-protective stature. The July 25 call is reportedly not close. In fact, many experts agreed that there was not even anything discussed that would be classified, much less of such national security import to get shuffled to the super-secret server. Others claimed that it was at least of a "secret" nature, though that category still does not warrant using the server at issue.
None of us would disagree that the sitting president needs to have secured, protectable channels of communication, particularly with other world leaders, and especially those, like President Zelensky, who could affect our security. The U.S. Constitution, and every legal tenet down the line, would conform to that truth. However, this instance shone light on how the ability must be limited. What we learned about the call, mind you from outlets on both philosophical aisles of American politics, was that the two discussed non-classified information, namely that the Ukraine was only potentially enjoying $400 million in aid and that its continuance was in the balance (the balance being dependent on arguable points, which to explore would take me back into two separate and highly biased aisles, and would not lend to this column otherwise). In other words, the über-protective server was potentially misused albeit at the advice of a National Security Counsel lawyer according to the White House.
Better safe than sorry, you may posit. After all, as claimed the move was promoted by the NSC whose charge is to protect us, which may mean screening off from scrutiny the president's national security calls. There's the rub. Again, I will not be getting into allegations and speculation, but let's say that a dialogue between two world leaders kicked around the idea of some questionably ethical offenses, or moral, or even legal ones. Then, the one leader who's in utter control of the highly sensitive server demands that the call's contents be buried there. There needs to be that ability, and after it's been affected no one can vet whether it was used appropriately. Here, some current security officials have reviewed the transcript and agree that it was not a classified conversation. The reason that we know it dealt with a sticky wicket of political maneuvering was because of the White House's own comments about the 30-minute call. The reason that it ended up on such a secured server still needs to be known.
This is all such a mess. Sadly, the one glaring issue of misusing the classified server harkens back to childhood fables. Remember Aesop's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? Eventually the shepherd boy's cry went ignored by the villagers after they'd been fooled too many times. Depending on the version of this fable that you rely on, the wolf finally did show up, the boy's cries went unheeded, and the wolf ate the flock of sheep, or in some versions the boy, too! I don't remember my mom's use of that version of the lesson.
The risk is that the secured environment gets watered down. Intelligence officers rely on the system as it is meant to be operated. If it becomes commonplace to toss into that server any old thing, how much significance will its contents embody? Placing items there for political reasons, or any untoward reasons, also waste's capacity. It's not that one 30-minute call transcript takes up gobs of ones and zeroes, but it could easily grow into a problem. These are just a couple risks inherent to abusing the secured server's position in the wider national security strategy.
Aesop's lesson has forever been used in school rooms to teach about the importance of honesty. Don't lie or you risk getting eaten. Pretty much cuts to the chase, eh? With the literary irony that can only play out in real life during these politically charged days, a 2009 study showed that reading "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to school kids actually promoted their willingness to engage in lies. And, there's the other rub: Take a fable going back to Classical times that's meant to make liars truthful and put it to modern use where it backfires. With that conundrum, it's hard to say if anything went wrong with that July call. Crying wolf has become the strategy, though its traditional lesson has devolved into exacerbating the problem.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.