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Government's Classification of Secrets; Top Secret Documents at Mar-a-Lago; New Warning of Violent Threats Against Law Enforcement and Government Personnel; Fact-Checking Trump's Defenses. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired August 15, 2022 - 08:30   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Plans and capabilities. Of course, relevant to the current conversation because some of the reporting is that the documents in Mar-a-Lago might have related to nuclear weapons as well.

Top level, the one you mentioned, Brianna, known as SCI, that's short for sensitive, compartmented information. This relates, as I was saying at the beginning, less about the information itself than how it was obtained. That it might be information that was obtained, say, from signals intelligence. That's intercepts of classified communications by an adversary or perhaps a source, a secret source inside a foreign government. That is considered the top secret SCI level as the top level of intelligence here.

It's a lot I know for folks at home to digest, but each has its own category and each has its own very specific definition.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's so important to know as we sort through all of this and what was taken from Mar-a-Lago.

Jim, thank you for that.

SCIUTTO: Thanks.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Joining us now, CNN national security analyst and former CIA chief for Russia operations, Steve Hall. Also with us is former CIA intelligence officer David Priess. He is the publisher of "Law Fair" and author of "The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents."

And, David, if I can, I just want to start with you because your life was this, was classified documents for so long.


BERMAN: What is that we need to know about all this?

PRIESS: We're spending a lot of time parsing out confidential versus secret versus top secret. And then within top secret, what are the compartments of information. The important thing is it's all classified information. This is all information that has been judged to be important to the security of the United States. This is not the kind of thing that Steve and I could take home and work on at night. That's not how it works even at the confidential level.

Now, the difference is, at the confidential level, it might reveal some information that's important to national security, but it doesn't compromise sources and methods of gaining future intelligence. Once you get up through secret and top secret, you're getting to the kind of information that not only is jeopardized in and of itself, but if you release that, it can jeopardize future intelligence collection and, therefore, harm national security.

KEILAR: You have critics, Steve, saying, did this really necessitate this kind of search and seizure? What do you say to that?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: You know, I get back to what David said. I mean, obviously, we were never the president of the United States, but if we had walked out of CIA headquarters or an NSA officer, which, unfortunately, has happened, with anything, whether it's confidential, whether it's top secret SCI, I mean at the very least we would have been fired and possibly, you know, put in jail.

Now, the president's got a little bit of a different situation, which we'll defer to lawyers on this. But I think at the bottom -- at the end of the day, I don't think really Donald Trump considered himself vulnerable, didn't consider himself -- it wasn't pertinent to him. He didn't think - he said, I'm the president, so I can do whatever I want. And, in that sense, how else are we going to find out what else is squirreled away in his, you know, coat closet, let alone in the basement.

So, yes, I think we had to go in there to try to find out what was - what was there.

BERMAN: You're talking about sources and methods that may be vulnerable here. To what extent, David, are we talking about people's lives?

PRIESS: That's what it comes down ultimately is the way intelligence operations work is, there are Americans serving overseas, as Steve did, who are trying to get people to give us information important for our national security. Think of things here like the North Korean nuclear program or Russian military operations. You're asking people to put their lives at risk to help the national security of the United States.

Now, Steve and I have both worked with people who have put themselves at great risk. We -- I presume we both know people who have died in the line of service getting this information. Exposing this information -- I get emotional here. Exposing this information puts people's lives at risk. That's not a joke. That's not a tag line. We know people who have died serving their country in this way. Compromising top secret material, especially the sensitive, compartmentalized information, is a travesty and it is really a degradation of all the care that all these other people have taken throughout history to protect this information. This is serious stuff. KEILAR: And the president - the former president should know that. He

stood in front of the wall with the stars on it that signify the CIA officers who have been lost as they do this work.

Do you have any clarity from this or a range of possibilities about why this many months after the president left the White House that these documents would be at Mar-a-Lago?

PRIESS: To me, that's the big question. It's not why members of Congress are saying, we want to know what's in these documents. That's the wrong question. If I'm doing oversight, I want to know, why did it take so long to get these documents? I don't care what party you're from. If you care about the national security of the United States, which you should if you're on the intelligence committee, the question you should be asking is, why was this material taken out of the White House at all? Then, months later, when it was aware to everyone that it had happened, why was it not all returned immediately? Why the lies? Why the obfuscations? What took investigators so long to go down and finally get these documents?


That's a much more appropriate question than, well, are they really classified or not? That's not the right one.

BERMAN: Steve?

HALL: You know, I think David's point is really on target. You know, we have to - we -- we do have to know what's in there and I think the collector, stuff that David and I used to do, we do - we less - we look less at, you know, OK, is it confidential, is it secret, is it top secret? What we're concerned about is, what lives are being put at risk? And that's just for the human intelligence side. If you're looking from the signals intelligence side, the question becomes, which of these documents that were, you know, in a basement someplace in a hotel, which of these documents compromise a technical collection capability, which is critical? But, at the end of the day, it really is about the systems and the people that are providing the U.S. government the intelligence and the intelligence that protects our national security. That's really the bottom line here.

BERMAN: David, and I know you know -- that you say this is not exactly the most important question, whether it was classified, declassified or whatnot, but explain to us how it would work. I mean can a president wave a magic wand or declassified something in his head without telling anybody?

PRIESS: We don't have a lot of court cases on this but we do have I believe it was the Second Circuit that did rule that a president can't just say something is declassified and it is declassified without some sort of process following it to inform people. So, Donald Trump can now say, well, I had a standing rule that everything I looked at was declassified if it was in the residence. But if those documents aren't marked as declassified, and if other documents containing the same information, which he has supposedly declassified aren't also declassified, did it really happen? If there's no record of it, how do you even know?

This is something that gets into some thorny issues. Does the commander in chief have inherent declassification authority going along with his classification authority in this kind of material, national security information? It certainly seems so. But you can't do it retroactively. You can't be a former president saying, oh, I did it back on that date and I just didn't tell anybody. But, trust me, I was the president then. It doesn't work that way.

BERMAN: A lot of information here.

David Priess, Steve Hall, great to have you both here. Thank you so much for being part of this, this morning.

PRIESS: You bet.

BERMAN: So, a chilling bulletin from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security this morning. Threats against law enforcement on the rise after the search at Mar-a-Lago.



BERMAN: The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are warning of violent threats against law enforcement and government personnel in the wake of the search at Mar-a-Lago. The two issuing a bulletin that reads in part, quote, these threats are occurring primarily online and across multiple platforms and include a threat to place a so-called dirty bomb in front of FBI headquarters and issuing general calls for civil war and armed rebellion.

KEILAR: Joining us now on this is CNN's law enforcement analyst and former deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe.

Andy, thank you so much for being with us on this.

This is a very different thing than personnel in the FBI that they're used to dealing with. How significant is this to you?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It's incredibly significant. So, you're right, the FBI periodically gets threats. Usually against specific agents for their involvement in isolated cases.

What makes this very different to me is it is -- that it's a broad- based attack against FBI people or a threat of an attack against FBI people writ large. And it is being prompted by what they did in the search at Mar-a-Lago, which is the type of work FBI people do every day. That is executing search warrants in a lawful, court-monitored way under the supervision of their own leadership in the Department of Justice. This is the meat and potatoes work that the FBI does and now they've all become targets for doing that work.

BERMAN: You ever see anything like this? MCCABE: Never. Never. Not in 21 years in the FBI and now a few years

out of it, I've never seen this level of kind of violent rhetoric directed wholesale at FBI people.

KEILAR: What does it take to tamp it down?

MCCABE: Well, it starts with people actually coming out and acknowledging it as a bad thing, right? So we need political leadership on both sides. Right now we really only have that on one side. Coming out and acknowledging that violence for any reason as a political grievance, what have you, is never ever appropriate. And this can't continue to happen.

BERMAN: One of the things that's been discussed after January 6th is that the warnings were right there in plain sight. They weren't hidden. And then January 6th happened.

How concerned are you that we're seeing that again right now?

MCCABE: Well, it's very concerning, John. But one thing about this is the FBI and DHS's response over the last few days indicates to me that maybe they are taking this sort of violent rhetoric on largely right wing social media sites more seriously than they did in the leadup to January 6th. That has always been a massive gap for me. It's just - it's just not -- it's hard to understand how with the level of rhetoric preceding January 6th that the FBI and DHS and other law enforcement entities didn't take that more seriously. The sort of message you see them put out today tells me that they are watching it closely and trying to take appropriate steps.

KEILAR: Should former President Trump know the effect of either his silence or his efforts to say maybe the FBI - you know, he's alleging the FBI maybe planted evidence or he's at least laying the groundwork for that possibility. Should he know the effect that those actions on his part can have when it comes to potential violence against the men and women in the FBI?

MCCABE: Brianna, my observations on this is that he is makes those statements because he knows the effect they will have, right? He had a distinctive experience on January 6th. That crowd that came and unleashed a violent attack on the Capitol did so, according to many of them who have testified, because they thought that's what he asked them to do.


He knows that that community, very aggrieved, politically extreme people are listening to everything he says and doesn't say and they react in ways that they think he wants them to act. So, I think that's why he's making the statements he is now.

BERMAN: Very quickly, Andy, and I've asked this question to a few different people today, but one of the things that Congressman Mike Turner asked Brianna in just a terrific interview yesterday was, well, they should come - the investigators should come show us the documents that were recovered as part of this investigation so we can see what they're all about. And I'm just curious, you've been part of a lot of different investigations, how comfortable would you be in the middle of an investigation showing members of Congress the evidence that you've retrieved up to this point?

MCCABE: Not comfortable at all. Not comfortable at all.

So, the FBI and the Department of Justice don't share evidence of a criminal investigation with members of Congress. That is -- it's prejudicial to the investigation. It can also be prejudicial to the person or people that are under investigation. There's a reason why this stuff is done quietly and that those facts and issues are protected, and that is to protect both the investigation and the folks who are currently targeted by it.

KEILAR: It was former President Trump, we should remind ourselves, who confirmed, who announced that this had happen, that this search and seizure had happened.

MCCABE: That's right.

KEILAR: Andrew, great to have you. Thank you so much.

MCCABE: Good to be here.

KEILAR: Baseless claims of evidence being planted, like we talked about here, and his predecessor also keeping classified documents. A fact check on former President Trump's shifting explanations about the search.



BERMAN: Former President Trump and his allies are giving evolving -


BERMAN: And sometimes conflicting defenses about the FBI's search at Mar-a-Lago. So, what's the truth?

Here now, CNN fact checker, Daniel Dale.

Daniel, great to have you here.

Let's just start with one of the things that Trump himself said. He said essentially Barack Obama did the same thing. He said, quote, President Barack Obama kept 33 million pages of documents. How much of them classified? How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots.

What's the truth here, Daniel?

DANIEL DALE, CNN REPORTER: There's no truth to that. And, John, you don't have to take my word for it because the National Archives and Records Administration issued a statement totally debunking this. They said the they, the National Archives and Records Administration, maintain exclusive legal and physical custody of the Obama era documents. They said that they were the ones who took about 31 million documents to the Chicago area, to their own facility, not like Obama's house. And they made clear that the classified documents were sent to another facility. So, basically nothing Trump said in that Truth Social post was actually accurate.

KEILAR: And Trump is also saying, Daniel, you know, they could have had these documents. All they had to do was ask. Did they ask?

DALE: Not only did the Department of Justice ask, Brianna, but the National Archives and Records Administration had been asking for months before that. It's not like the DOJ, FBI just showed up with a search warrant. This issue dates back to 2021. It's been an ongoing saga with a lot of communication back and forth. And the DOJ also showed up with a grand jury subpoena in June after which Trump lawyer signed a document claiming that there were no more classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Now, according to DOJ and the FBI, that was not true.

BERMAN: There are some within Trump world trying to shift blame here to the GSA, the General Services Administration. What about that, Daniel?

DALE: So, it's hard to know what happened behind the scenes. The claim is that the GSA put some wrong stuff in boxes by mistake. It's their fault. Well, I don't know what -- who put what in boxes, but I do know the GSA issued a statement saying, look, we contract to wrap up the things that the president says are necessary to wind down his office, but it is the sole responsibility of the president and his staff as to deciding what actually goes in that -- those boxes. It's not us that makes a decision about what to pack up and what not to.

KEILAR: And, lastly, what about this claim by Donald Trump this all the White House documents he brought with him to Mar-a-Lago had been declassified?

DALE: So, you've been talking about this earlier on the show. I'd say a few things.

Number one, Trump and his team have presented no evidence there was actually some sort of declassification order. And I can tell you, multiple former administration officials, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, said they'd never heard anything like that.

Number two, as a previous guest discussed, it's very much unclear as to whether such a broad order like everything I take home would be declassified would be considered legitimate by the courts, other government authorities.

And I think there's also another important point, and that's the three statutes, the three laws that were mentioned in that search warrant do not hinge on whether the documents someone possesses, allegedly improperly, were actually classified. So this issue of classification, it's important for various reasons, but it may not be the deciding factor in terms of whether, say, former President Trump gets charged with something. BERMAN: Daniel Dale, this is super helpful. Thank you so much for

joining us this morning.

Also developing this morning, House Republicans set to issue a scathing report criticizing President Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal.

KEILAR: And just in moments ago, a Russian official confirming that talks are currently underway for a potential prisoner swap.



KEILAR: Time now for "5 Things to Know for Your New Day."

A scathing report is set to be released by House Republicans criticizing the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal. The report titled "Strategic Failure" reveals new details about several errors made by the Biden administration, including inadequate planning and lack of staffing.

BERMAN: This morning, Salman Rushdie is off a ventilator and has managed to say a few words after Friday's brutal on-stage stabbing attack. Iran blames the author and his supporters for what happened and denies any connection to the suspect.

KEILAR: Award-winning actress Anne Heche has died. Her family says she was taken off life support after suffering from critical brain and burn injuries following a fiery car crash in Los Angeles ten days ago. She was 53 years old.

BERMAN: A manhunt is underway for the brother of former NFL player Aqib Talib. Police say Yaqub Salik Talib pulled out a gun and started shooting after an argument broke out between coaches and referees at a youth football game in Lancaster, Texas. The victim died later at the hospital.

KEILAR: As WNBA star Brittney Griner's legal team files to appeal her verdict and sentence of nine years in prison, a Russian official has confirmed ongoing discussions over the potential prisoner swap o Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year-sentence in the U.S.

BERMAN: Those are "5 Things to Know For Your New Day." More on these stories all day on CNN and And don't forget to download the "5 Things" podcast every morning. Go to

Interesting to hear about Brittney Griner, that there are at least discussions underway. That's where it starts, I suppose.

KEILAR: Yes, and I think also, I'm just waiting to see how much more vocal people get.


We've had a lot of news, but there, obviously, is going to be a lot of, you would expect, public support to get her home. Nine years in prison. That sentence is very long.

BERMAN: A ridiculous sentence.

All right, glad to see you. You don't get no days off. You had to work Sunday. You're back here today.

KEILAR: It was fun, though. It's great to -- great to have a long week this week.

All right, CNN's coverage continues right now.