The day after the FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, this popped up in my Twitter feed:
Rachel Vindman, of course, is the wife of retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, whose military career was destroyed by a vengeful commander-in-chief after Vindman testified to Congress about Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine’s president into digging up dirt on a political rival, Joe Biden.
Rachel’s tweet may not make a lot of sense to those outside the DoD, but I knew instantly what she meant by it: that Trump had continued to come after her husband even after forcing him out of the Army, most likely trying to make trouble for him with a trumped-up(!) investigation into how he handled classified material while still in uniform. And more than that: Rachel’s showing that Trump and his cronies understood the rules of handling classified material quite well — well enough to try to use those rules against a perceived enemy.
In my Air Force career, I managed to get in trouble twice over classified material. For the first screwup, I received a written reprimand. The second screwup, thank goodness, turned out not to be mine — had it been, I might have wound up in Leavenworth. Unlike Alexander Vindman, I hadn’t made any enemies. Had someone higher up the chain been actively trying to end my career, he probably would have succeeded.
Oh, you want the piggy dirties? Happy to oblige, so long as you understand why I still have to be vague about certain details.
In the spring of 1982, two WWII aces visited Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, where we were making a new home for the F-15 Eagle fighter. We’d just begun converting the squadron from the F-4 Phantom II to the F-15, and there were only two Eagle pilots on base to show the visitors around, me and my boss Crumer. We didn’t even have any F-15s to show our guests — the new aircraft wouldn’t start arriving for another few weeks. But we had a brand-new F-15 simulator, built for the Saudis but for some reason canceled and given to us instead.
I was detailed to give the two WWII aces a tour of the sim facility, and to talk them through flying it. One of the men was Ken Taylor, one of the few American pilots to get airborne and engage attacking Japanese aircraft over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The other was a Zero pilot named Saburo Sakai, a Japanese ace many times over.
Both men took turns flying the sim, but then, with several minutes left to kill before the next scheduled event on their tour, I showed them the simulator instructor’s console, including a screen showing a menu of enemy aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery, and surface-to-air missiles the sim instructor could sic against the pilot in the sim, threats that would appear and behave in realistic ways on the cockpit scopes and screens.
Fifteen minutes after returning to the squadron, the wing commander’s hotline on my desk lit up. “Skid,” he said, “did you show those guys something you shouldn’t have?” Before he even finished asking the question, four Alaskan Air Command intel officers in class As, men I’d never seen before, surrounded me at my desk and motioned for me to hang up the phone. They then frog-marched me to a SCIF at AAC headquarters, where they grilled me about who I was working for and what else I might have shown our uncleared visitors. I didn’t even know what I’d shown them in the first place, let alone anything else.
What had happened, I finally learned, was that one of the visitors’ escorts had seen a Secret NOFORN label on the menu of simulator threats I called up, and ratted me out. During the 10-day investigation that followed, I was restricted to non-classified work and forbidden to leave the base. Fortunately for me, they interviewed F-15 pilots and simulator instructors at units in Europe, the US, and Japan, discovering that most of us had no idea the information on that screen was classified. Only one of the sim instructors they talked to, as I recall, had ever noticed the Secret NOFORN label on the threat menu.
I was cleared, but with a strong slap on the wrist as a warning to others: a written reprimand to stay in my records for a year. By the time I was up for promotion to major, two years later, the bad stuff was no longer in my file and I made it, so no long-term consequences. Still, it scared me and left an impression.
Good thing, too, because my new-found caution around classified material saved my ass during the second incident, which otherwise would have been career-ending (or worse). In 1988, when I was a joint staff officer at US Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB in Florida, the then-deputy secretary of defense for readiness asked our commander, an Army four-star, for a detailed readiness report on the nation’s special operations forces: Navy, Army, and Air Force. As the J3 readiness officer, I was put in charge of the team writing the report. It was a massive effort, and the result was a 400-page door-stopper of a document. There was a main section, which I mostly wrote and which we initially classified secret, and a smaller top secret annex put together by the snake eaters back in USSOCOM’s SCIF.
In January 1989, on the eve of delivering copies to the deputy secdef, the USSOCOM commander, the DoD, and the JCS, an intel puke (those guys again!) said the entire report ought to be reclassified as top secret, with the annex upgraded to a need-to-know compartmented intelligence level. We scrambled to relabel and reprint everything, incinerating all the old copies. Then we sent the report out. Each copy was numbered and delivered by courier, protected and accounted for from origin (me) to end user.
And I kept a copy of the distribution list, showing every numbered copy, who delivered each one, and who signed for it on the other end. Which came in handy when a copy went missing and they came looking for someone to blame. I think I can say that the FBI got involved, as it did at Mar-a-Lago, but by that point it was no longer my problem, because I was totally in the clear and on my way to a new flying assignment in Japan.
When it comes to classified material, you can’t be too careful. Unless you’re orange, that is, in which case this classic tweet applies:
© 2022, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.