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A former federal prosecutor reacts to the redacted Mar-a-Lago affidavit


Brandon Van Grack joins us next. He's a former federal prosecutor who has investigated and prosecuted cases involving the Espionage Act. He also was part of Robert Mueller's special counsel team. Welcome to the program.

BRANDON VAN GRACK: Good morning. Thank you.

INSKEEP: OK. So we heard the description of the intelligence according to the warrant, the property receipt and the redacted affidavit, its description of human intelligence and signals intelligence. Why would it be so sensitive, potentially, that that kind of intelligence might be compromised?

VAN GRACK: Well, the reason these documents have these markings on them are to signal that these sources and methods and expert within the intelligence community has determined that if this information were disclosed to unauthorized individuals, these sources and methods could be compromised. These human sources, these methods to collect information could be compromised and impair not just our government's ability to collect this information but could also harm individuals. And it's the reason why there are so many layers of protection in terms of handling it.

INSKEEP: I want to be totally clear about this. We're talking about somebody who may be an informant. Or we might call them a spy in another country. And if their identity is revealed, it's not just that they'd be compromised. They might be killed.

VAN GRACK: So that's right. But it's also - it's important to qualify this, which is we don't know. And this is the reason why the letter from the director of National Intelligence was so important to get that confirmation, although it's not a surprise, which is this is what the intelligence community needs to be doing right now, should be doing, which is receiving and reviewing this information and determining exactly what you said, conducting that risk assessment and determining - if there is, in fact, this risk - what they can do to mitigate it. And it's the reason why, from the Department of Justice perspective, from the FBI's perspective, obtaining these documents and providing them to the intelligence community is and always was the top priority of the government.

INSKEEP: Meaning that whether you prosecute anybody or not, you needed to get the documents back and understand what the danger is here.

VAN GRACK: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: I want to understand a few things that the former president and some of his supporters have said and what the implications of them are. Former President Trump has made a claim for which there is no documentation whatsoever, that he had a standing order to declassify various documents. And if the former president declassified them, are they any less sensitive, any less hazardous to the United States that they would be out in the world?

VAN GRACK: So that's a great question. And the answer is no. From a national security perspective, it doesn't change that calculation. Or at least, it would not appear to change the calculation. From a criminal prosecution standpoint, it could. It's a qualifier. It could. But there's one other point that's really important because on your show, you talked about the fact that there was this affidavit that was just unredacted that provided some information. And there are two really important pieces of that that relate to the question you just asked, which is, first, based on what was unredacted, the former president's attorneys do not appear to have made that argument to the Department of Justice, do not appear to have affirmatively indicated that this information was declassified. It says he could declassify it. And the second piece is, this unredacted affidavit, it appears the Department of Justice at this time does not believe that occurred. It uses language in the affidavit, it uses language in its communications to the former president that does not indicate to me that they believe this information at this time was, in fact, declassified.

INSKEEP: The former president's supporters have also honed in on the fact that there were things redacted. And it's entire pages at times that are cut out. It's not just a stray word. There are many pages or several pages missing from what we were able to see. Granting that we don't know what's in there, what sort of information would be redacted in this case?

VAN GRACK: Well, I will say, I think the most interesting redactions are paragraphs 62 through 76 of the document. And those redactions pertain to the moments or time period after the Department of Justice unmistakably communicated to the former president's attorneys that there was concern that there were classified documents being stored that were not being protected and secured. And they were warned that this information needed to be secured and protected until further notice. And then there are 15 paragraphs that are redacted in that - in the affidavit. And I think those 15 paragraphs are the core as to whether, in fact, there will be criminal charges here. We don't know what that information is, but something happened after that warning that materially changed this investigation.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, what do you make of the long timeline here? The National Archives asked for the records in May 2021. Trump seems to, according to the affidavit, have put them off until December 2021. Then they, quote, "found some records." What do you make of the long timeline?

VAN GRACK: There are two pieces, which is - first is, really, an extended effort to be accommodating, to collect this information. But the second piece is that that means that there have been many months - either 12 or 19 months - in which a substantial volume of classified information has been unsecured and unprotected. And that raises real national security issues.

INSKEEP: Brandon Van Grack, former federal prosecutor. Thanks so much.

VAN GRACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.