White House’s top-secret computer system explained


WASHINGTON – The whistleblower who exposed President Trump’s attempt to pressure the Ukrainian leader to open investigations that could be of political benefit to him has also accused White House officials of essentially hiding a rough record of the conversation by placing it in the same highly restricted computer system for closely watched individuals. government secrets.

In his complaint, the whistleblower cited White House officials who described the storage of call recording in this system as “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive information – rather than sensitive information to national security ”and called it an“ abuse ”. Here’s how the restricted storage system works, according to interviews with more than half a dozen former National Security Council staff who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Most of the time, the National Security Council – the foreign policy arm of the White House – commemorates presidential phone or video calls with foreign heads of state over the so-called TNet system, officials said. It is a high level computer network which is the main platform used by assistants to do their work. It connects to a top secret network called JWICS, which is more widely used elsewhere in the executive branch.

TNet has access controls and audit guarantees. For example, it keeps track of who created or downloaded files, who viewed them, who edited them, and how and who printed them. When officials create a ‘package’ – essentially, a new file – in TNet, they can set up controls so that any colleague working on a particular topic, such as EU affairs or the fight against terrorism, can access them.

Officials can store any file classified at the top secret level – the highest classification – as long as it is not a “code word,” a term referring to a specialized category of information. even more delicate top secrets that officials are allowed to consult. are only aware of it if they have obtained specific access to it.

Officials with Top Secret General Security Clearance will not receive a code word clearance to inquire about secret activities unrelated to their work. For example, an aide working on North Korean politics would not have been made aware of the planning for the 2011 raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Likewise, files containing information supporting the planned raid were not stored in the regular TNet system.

The council also has an even more locked down system called NICE, standing for NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment. NICE appears to be what the whistleblower called a “stand-alone” computer system managed by the council’s intelligence programs branch. A former official said it was best understood as a subdomain of TNet.

Foreign policy assistants typically use NICE to develop and store documents related to code word programs. For example, staff members working on a covert activity might use NICE to draft a presidential conclusion or decision note about it. When they are finished, they print a copy for the president to sign.

This greatly reduces the number of people who can access it. Only around 20% of National Security Council staff are NICE users, a former official said. They can connect to the system from their work computers using virtual private network software that limits each of them to the use of that particular workstation.

When NICE users create or upload a new file, they can only allow other NICE users to access it by name; unlike TNet, they can’t invite entire groups, the former official said.

Using the NICE system to restrict access to the recording of Mr Trump’s call with Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky could very well be, as the whistleblower also wrote , a sign “that White House officials understood the seriousness of what had transpired in the call. But calling it” abuse “seems to be subjective.

Typically, the National Security Advisor can decide who can see which files. There is no rule against putting a file with a lower level classification into the NICE system in order to take advantage of its greater access restrictions, a former official said.

By contrast, the official said, it would clearly be abuse – in violation of a specific ban in a decree governing classified information – to mark something classified at a higher unjustified level in order to cover up violations of the law or to avoid embarrassment. Here, however, the published call recording was simply marked “secret”, a lower classification level than “top secret”.

According to several former officials who helped create the records, the process usually begins with a note taker who works for the White House situation room and monitors the call. The Situation Room uses voice-to-text software to create a rough transcription in real time – no recording is made – then the note taker does a first pass to clean it up by correcting any obvious truncated moments.

This draft is then passed on to a subject matter expert from National Security Council staff who also listened to the appeal. This specialist – who has a greater knowledge of foreign names and places – edits the dossier. At the end of the process, the aides hand the file over to the national security adviser.

Beyond the fact that the note is not a text transcript, it contains three ellipses where Mr. Trump was speaking – and each in a place where he asked the President of Ukraine for inquiries.

It is not clear whether this indicates that Mr. Trump has stopped or that something has been removed from the rebuild. It is also not clear whether there are any notes from US officials that would indicate whether he said anything more at those places.

But one official said any notes or draft documents discussed by two or more National Security Council officials count as a “file” that cannot legally be destroyed under the Presidential Files Act. However, the initial file produced by the voice-to-text software would not count as a recording and could be legally deleted, the official said.

It is not clear whether Mr. Zelensky’s administration recorded his call with Mr. Trump. Previous Ukrainian governments have not recorded appeals with world leaders, according to a former senior Ukrainian official familiar with the process. Instead, along with high-level and strategically important foreign officials, Ukraine’s leaders would ask advisers to listen and take detailed notes, he said.

The White House transcript of Mr. Trump’s July call with Mr. Zelensky was accurate and complete, a Ukrainian official familiar with her said, adding that important information was not omitted, including by the ellipses.

Lara Jakes and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting.


Gordon K. Morehouse