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From spy planes to cyberattacks to the private lives of foreign leaders, the president gets access to more confidential material than anyone else on the planet. Now, it’s all in Donald Trump’s hands.
When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, outgoing president Harry Truman informed him of an important secret: Days before the election the United States had tested the world’s first hydrogen bomb in the Pacific. The nation now possessed a weapon roughly a hundred times as powerful as any before—and almost nobody else knew.
Eight years later, when Eisenhower handed the keys to John F. Kennedy, his administration passed along its own secret: America had a covert plan underway to invade Cuba. Kennedy let the Bay of Pigs mission proceed, and the result was a fiasco that would take the world to the brink of nuclear war.
The president of the United States has more access to official secrets than any other human being in the country—and the potential to know more about the world than anyone else on the planet. And on January 20, the person being handed access to all of those secrets will be Donald J. Trump.
While much attention has been focused on Trump’s access to the nuclear launch codes and the President’s Daily Brief—the classified intelligence report delivered inside a locked briefcase each morning to the Oval Office—those represent only a tiny sliver of the massive top-secret universe that Trump personally will suddenly be privy to. He will have the ability to see inside the most sensitive and covert programs run by the United States and its allies around the world; he will have access to surveillance tools, covert payrolls and personal secrets about foreign leaders. He will know about blacked-out special forces raids and UFO-like spy planes, the next-generation cyberattacks that would come in the opening minutes of a new war, and the dozens of secret classified procedures and laws written down by his presidential predecessors. He’ll even be first in line for some mundane but important things: As president, Trump will be one of just four senior officials to learn sensitive market-moving economic data from the Labor Department up to 12 hours before it is released publicly.
The United States has invested trillions of dollars to ensure that its president can know more than anyone else on Earth—knowledge meant to be deployed to the country’s advantage in trade negotiations, military posturing and a thousand other ways big and small. Given Trump’s behavior so far, it seems almost assured that he will deploy and weaponize those same secrets in “unpresidented” ways, to win personal fights and minor PR battles. Already, before taking office, he has tweeted out claims about his meetings with intel agencies, asserted that he knows information the rest of the government doesn’t and tried to embarrass and undermine rivals or critics through insinuation. And that’s all before he has learned any of what President George W. Bush once called “the good stuff.”
What is the good stuff, and how might Trump use it? Many of the specifics are cloaked in deep shadow—that’s obviously the point—but thanks to decades of dogged reporting, lawsuits and historical archives, we do know a significant amount about the types of secrets a president learns. It’s anyone’s guess what Trump might do to embarrass intransigent foreign leaders, or what late-night or early-morning tweetstorms might erupt from the White House if he senses hypocrisy from an ally—or what will happen when a president whose family will still control his complex business empire has access to important geopolitical developments or early market data.
The Kill List
One of the relatively new powers of the presidency is the ability to sign off on strikes from Predator and Reaper drones run by the CIA and the Pentagon. While political assassination is forbidden by Executive Order 12333, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have enjoyed wide latitude in designating suspected terrorists for lethal strikes in areas like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. The exact process for such “kinetic” attacks, never publicly revealed in depth and not beholden to any judicial oversight, will be explained carefully to the new president. We’ll never know who exactly will be named to the new administration’s “kill list,” and we may never know what happens to them. But Trump will: After such attacks, the president and vice president are also among the select group of government officials who can, if they choose, watch the high-tech videos of the drone strikes themselves. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney regularly watched such “kill videos” during their morning intelligence briefings. As president, Trump will also have sway over the opaque process itself, so he could well tweak or expand the lethal authorities of the commander in chief without any public disclosure that the rules have changed.
Whereas most people tend to think ofclassified information as broad categories like Confidential, Secret and Top Secret—the three levels of security clearance that individuals are typically granted—the nation’s most sensitive secrets occupy their own category of “Special Access Programs” of “Sensitive Compartmented Information,” labels colloquially known as “beyond top secret.” These SAPs include information like specific National Security Agency technological surveillance and hacking capabilities, as well as ongoing intelligence projects and joint operations with allies. In one of his early such briefings, Obama was told of the joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to disable the Iranian nuclear program through cyberattacks like the Stuxnet malware. Eight years later, the NSA’s elite hacking unit, as well as its British and Israeli counterparts, has an even broader suite of tools and operations underway, both spying and sabotage. And the United States doesn’t spy on just its enemies: Leaks from Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. intelligence regularly listened to the telephone calls and read emails of foreign officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and top overseas business leaders—transcripts and documents that Trump could routinely access if he so desired.
Those beyond-top-secret files would alsoinclude details about which foreign officials are on the payroll of agencies like the CIA or the Drug Enforcement Administration. These payments can run into the millions and last for years; President Jimmy Carter was shocked to discover that the CIA had been paying King Hussein of Jordan six and seven figures annually for nearly two decades to ensure his cooperation with American interests. Presidents have traditionally refrained from asking the identities of specific sources, but that’s just a custom: If Trump asks for a briefing on the clandestine payroll, the agency would almost certainly comply. The DEA, whose drug-fighting efforts give it a broad global footprint, also works closely with foreign governments and deploys its own powerful surveillance tools. WikiLeaks, for instance, exposed how Panama’s leader pressured the agency in 2009 to use its wiretapping program, codenamed Matador, to uncover who was “sleeping with his wife.” (The agency demurred.)
The whole point of these laws and procedures is to grant the president power the public doesn’t even know he has—and might not know until it’s unveiled in a crisis.
In addition to the “nuclear football”—the briefcase carried close to the president by a military aide that contains the nation’s nuclear war plans—the president will automatically gain access to what’s known as “Q clearance” information from the Department of Energy. This includes the operational details of the nation’s nuclear weapons program: its weapons stockpiles, damage estimates, technological specifications and the procedures for securing and launching the nation’s nuclear triad—the bombers, submarines and silo-based ICBMs that can rain nuclear destruction on the nation’s enemies in as little as 30 minutes.
Spy Satellites and Secret Aircraft
Beyond the secrets buried in missilesilos,Trump will also receive briefings—if requested—on the constellation of spy satellites and detection technologies that watch the Earth from above, many of which are run by the National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence agency so secretive that its very name and existence were classified from its creation in 1960 until 1992. According to people who have been briefed on such technologies, the nation’s spy satellite capabilities, while not quite at the read-the-newspaper-over-your-shoulder level implied by movies like Enemy of the State, are vastly more advanced than the public realizes. There are also a number of classified aircraft with unique capabilities (including a growing number of drones) whose existence has never been acknowledged; one such helicopter, a stealth version of the Black Hawk, was only made public when it crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Such aircraft are often tested at Nevada’s Area 51—where conspiracy theorists claim the government holds its fleet of captured UFOs—and experts estimate that there are upward of a dozen aircraft that the United States has never publicly acknowledged, the modern successors of earlier secret programs like the U-2, the SR-71 spy plane and the B-2 stealth bomber. (And, if the government does have a secret set of UFOs captured from Roswell and other close encounters, Trump might be soon learning that, too.)
In 2015, when Obama released his newhostage policy—known as Presidential Policy Directive No. 30—close watchers of the administration realized the last publicly announced PPD had been No. 28, which meant that sometime between January 17, 2014, and June 24, 2015, he had signed yet another directive whose very existence was classified. Whatever it is, PPD 29 is one of dozens of secret presidential national security orders, some of which stretch back decades. Each president has called these documents something slightly different, but collectively they deal with high-level strategic and policy decisions around national security and, more recently, homeland security. While the subject matter or title of most such documents are made public upon signing, or declassified rather quickly, dozens remain classified even years or decades later. From the titles, we know that most classified directives appear to deal with nuclear weapons, continuity of government, the war on terror or relationships with foreign countries, but we have no idea what some of these documents are even about. Together, these represent an increasingly broad body of “secret law” opaque to the outside world, including Congress. The whole point of these laws and procedures is to grant the president power the public doesn’t even know he has—and might not know until it’s unveiled to us in the midst of a crisis, either real or invented.
The two most recent occupants of theOval Office received regular briefings on unfolding domestic terror threats and potential suspects; in the wake of 9/11, Bush met every morning with FBI Director Robert Mueller to review an Excel-like spreadsheet of possible plots known as the “threat matrix.” Obama, for his part, often devoted Tuesday afternoons to what the White House called “Terror Tuesdays,” reviewing unfolding investigations and larger strategic questions. Both presidents were regularly informed about individual terror plots; Bush even tracked individual suspects day to day. Given Trump’s campaign obsession with the Islamic State, terrorism and immigration—and his habit of self-congratulation when horrific attacks unfold around the world—it’s not hard to imagine him personally dictating raids and arrests and then announcing them via Twitter.
World Leaders’ (and Americans’) Personal Lives
One of the favorite presidential perksin decades past was reading the FBI surveillance reports on other politicians and prominent Americans, collected and delivered to the White House by an eager-to-please J. Edgar Hoover. While, in theory, the FBI no longer serves up personal secrets for prurient entertainment or political blackmail, presidential aides do get to review the results of background investigations for classified clearances. Moreover, intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA regularly provide the White House and high-level diplomats with information on the drug habits, sexual preferences, financial shenanigans, criminal associations, allegations of corruption or family squabbles of other world leaders, foreign business figures or other prominent individuals. WikiLeaks, for example, made public a U.S. diplomatic cable hinting at Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi’s relationship with his “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse.
These reports lead to interesting moments across the negotiating tables: For instance, the president will know whether, the night before an Oval Office grip-and-grin, a Middle Eastern prince spent the previous evening carousing with call girls in Georgetown (a frequent enough occurrence in Washington). Historically, such information has been kept tightly held, but given Trump’s flair for the theatrical and his proclivity for scorched-earth tactics with his opponents—to say nothing of his friendship with National Enquirer publisher David Pecker—perhaps we’ll soon be learning a lot more about our allies and foes around the world.