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How fallout from top secret documents found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort could affect Canada

The discovery of top secret documents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort sparked a criminal investigation and has the former U.S. president facing the possibility of criminal charges. But it’s also raised alarms in intelligence circles, where allies of the U.S., which share information and include Canada, wonder what is in the documents and if it could have an impact on intelligence needed to protect national security. 

Former national security adviser to prime minister says Canada should be concerned.

Vincent Rigby saw a lot over his 30-year career in public service, much of it working with some of the most sensitive and secret intelligence issues in Canada.

But for all that experience, the former national security adviser to the prime minister found himself in a state of disbelief in August when he saw the FBI search the home of former U.S. president Donald Trump and leave with boxes of highly sensitive, classified information.

“I was absolutely stunned that based on the media reports that I saw, he had in his possession what are reputed to be very, very sensitive documents and it’s just something that is unheard of,” Rigby said in an interview with The Fifth Estate.

“Just disbelief that somebody could take those out of the White House, stick them, I presume, on a plane or in a truck, drive them down to Florida and then put them … effectively in a basement, it’s just disbelief,” said Rigby, now a visiting professor at the Maxwell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

The material has set off a damage assessment by the U.S. intelligence community as it tries to understand what classified information was contained in the documents the former president had in his possession.

But the concern extends beyond just U.S. intelligence. The United States is a member of the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing organization that also includes Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Rigby said any potential security breach for one member has a ripple effect within the entire group and would also reverberate through the halls of the dozen or so agencies that share and collect intelligence in Canada, including the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

“In a worst-case scenario, there’s Canadian intelligence, that’s a direct implication,” said Rigby who played a critical role in Canada’s intelligence community as the national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister from January 2020 until his retirement in September 2021.

Unprecedented search

On Aug. 8, the FBI took the unprecedented step of searching the home of a former U.S. president. With heavily armed Secret Service agents standing guard outside, teams of FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.

During the August search, the FBI combed through the posh club, which doubles as Trump’s primary residence, recovering 100 documents with classification markings, including 18 marked top secret, 54 marked secret and 31 marked confidential. The documents were found in Trump’s bedroom, an office and a first-floor storage room, according to court filings.

According to an inventory filed as part of a legal battle over the documents recovered, the material found includes some of the highest classification levels of U.S. intelligence, including material that’s highly compartmentalized and only available to a select few.

The search was part of an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department into the storing and mishandling of national defence information and possible obstruction of justice.

The probe was sparked by an almost year-long effort by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to recover presidential records removed by Trump after he left the White House in January 2021.

In January 2022, Trump’s lawyers returned 15 boxes of records. In those boxes, archivists found more than 100 documents with classification markings, comprising more than 700 pages, according to a letter from NARA to Trump’s lawyers.

‘Inappropriate’ to comment, government says

It’s not clear if any intelligence directly related to Canada is among the documents. The Fifth Estate contacted CSIS, Global Affairs, Public Safety Canada and the minister responsible for public safety, Marco Mendicino, for comment.

Instead, The Fifth Estate was sent a response from the Privy Council Office, which reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“At this stage, it would be inappropriate for the Government of Canada to comment on an ongoing U.S. law-enforcement investigation,” the Privy Council Office said in the statement.

“Should the Government of Canada be made aware of any security breaches, appropriate protocols and procedures are in place to deal with them.”

An aerial view of a posh resort surrounded by palm trees with a swimming pool at the centre.

But experts say that because Canada relies so heavily on the U.S. for intelligence, any impact on its ability to collect information would be felt north of the border.

“Knowing the prime minister, he may well have reached out and had some pointed questions, if not directly from him, from a staff in the Prime Minister’s Office: ‘Do we need to be concerned? Are there any issues here? What’s at stake?'” said Rigby, cautioning that he doesn’t know if the prime minister has been briefed.

As national security and intelligence adviser, he was also responsible for co-ordinating the security intelligence community within Canada and liaising with allies, especially the U.S.

Rigby said if he was still in Ottawa in his former job, he’d likely be putting a call into his counterpart, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, “to say: ‘OK, can you just give us a little bit of insight here as to what are these documents? And should we be concerned from a Canadian perspective?'”

Implications for Canada

The concern isn’t theoretical, in part because what is reportedly in at least some of the documents relates directly to a current national security issue in Canada.

The Washington Post reported that some of the material recovered “described highly sensitive intelligence work aimed at China.”

Chinese interference in Canadian elections and other national security concerns have been top of mind in Ottawa recently. At a meeting of the procedure and house affairs committee earlier this month, Michelle Tessier, deputy director of operations for CSIS, told members of Parliament about their concern about the Chinese Communist Party.

“They are an actor in foreign interference,” Tessier told the committee on Nov. 1, “and we have said that publicly and I can state again that we are concerned about the activities regarding threats against the security of Canada, including foreign interference by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Rigby said the activities China could be involved in range from foreign interference and espionage to disinformation, misinformation, cyberattacks and more.

He said China is also very aggressive in its intelligence collection so it would likely target information in Trump’s possession to help it understand what the U.S. knows about its operations.

“If this intelligence is not stored properly, if it’s sitting in a basement room somewhere without being properly locked up, it can potentially be grabbed by foreign intelligence agencies. And it can put not just the U.S. at heightened risk, but the Five Eyes, our allies and Canada included.”

Artur Wilczynski, a former associate deputy chief of signals intelligence at the Communications Security Establishment, says information shared among the Five Eyes, like intelligence on China, is essential for Canadian security interests. Losing access to that would have an effect on the ability to manage risk, he said.

“If some of that information that’s essential to make decisions is no longer available because sources are compromised, then you do not have all the information that you should have in order to make an informed decision,” Wilczynski told The Fifth Estate.

A major reason so many in the intelligence community worry that information could be compromised is that it was stored at Trump’s home in Florida, the private club known as Mar-a-Lago.

The FBI expressed concern that the facility lacked a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, also known as an SCIF, a specially designed area to store and view top secret information.

Mar-a-Lago is well-known among intelligence experts for substandard security, which has seen a host of dubious characters gain access over the years, including a woman posing as a wealthy heiress (who had among other documents, a forged Canadian passport) and a Chinese national who was found to have numerous electronic surveillance and computer hacking devices.

How to steal top secret information

A former CIA case officer tells The Fifth Estate how he would go about infiltrating former U.S. president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club to try to gain access to top secret information stored there.

That easy accessibility makes it a prime target for foreign intelligence agencies to try to gain access to the former president and any material he may have in his possession, says Peter Strzok, a former FBI deputy director for counterintelligence.

“I find it hard to believe that certainly when you think about China, when you think about Russia, that they would not have extended extraordinary efforts which continue to this day to get access to Trump,” Strzok told The Fifth Estate.

“Whether that is people close to him, whether that is his electronics, his email, his texts, whether that is the places that he frequents, that he lives, those efforts were significant in all likelihood, and continue to be significant.”

Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada and a vocal Trump critic, was shocked but not surprised when he heard about the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago.

“This is in a resort property in Florida … a place where people go to have weddings and parties, and we have the highest level of security documents sitting around, laying around the house. I mean, this is absolutely appalling.”

Exposing sources

A major concern would be the fallout for human sources — the spies themselves — if the top secret material found in Trump’s possession fell into the hands of adversaries, said Douglas London, a former case officer with the CIA.

London, who also worked in counterterrorism operations, said a damage assessment of the material Trump had would look at whether any sources or methods of collection had been affected.

He said the process can be exhaustive and operations could be stopped if agencies feel like the people risking their lives to gather information were at risk.

“These are not necessarily mercenary folks, these are people who often refuse money or material compensation because they’re doing it for their children, their future. And those are the people that will pay the dearest consequences if they’re compromised,” London said.

Those consequences, he said, are severe.

“You’re talking about police, state surveillance, states like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and even some countries that we deal with as partners across the world who are led by autocrats who are rather brutal and tend not just to kill the agent or the source, but to retaliate against their family and their networks and their friends.”

Rigby agrees the risks posed by the documents found at Mar-a-Lago could potentially have life-or-death consequences for those on the front lines of intelligence gathering.

“They could end up in prison for a long time, or in some cases, extreme cases, they are executed. It’s a very dangerous business, a very dangerous business.”

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