A Failure to Secure Classified Documents

By | January 21, 2023

[January 21, 2023]  Idiots!  That’s the first thing that popped into my head when I heard about the failure to secure Secret classified documents at the U.S. Army Headquarters during the Iraq War.  It was late 2006, and we were taking a beating.  But, the unpredictable is bound to happen, and it did to us.

One of our Iraqi contractors was in downtown Baghdad making daily purchases in one of the large, open street markets.  What he found shocked us.  There was a vendor selling bags of thumb drives, those little sticks that contained anything that could be digitized.  So he purchased one of the bags and brought it back to our Headquarters.  Upon examination, the thumb drives contained electronic files classified as “Secret.”

I would not want to be in the room when they told our four-star commander about it.  I’m sure GEN George Casey, Jr., who commanded the Army Headquarters, was upset and disappointed in our failure to protect secret classified documents.  He immediately plugged the gap and stopped the outflow of classified documents.

At the time, I was working as the Reconstruction Officer and Facilities Chief, filling two Colonel (O-6) positions, so I had a full staff of Engineers.  We worked in what was known as the Boat House, a small structure close to the Army Headquarters.  Our entire building operated in a Secret secure mode, meaning anyone inside must hold a minimum Secret clearance, no exceptions.  And we had a posted guard 24/7.  What that meant was that everything we did was sensitive and controlled.

When I arrived in my new position, one of my NCOs asked what I wanted to do with the thumb drives we were issued.  I told him to keep them in the safe and, after accounting for them, never to issue them to anyone without my permission, and no one would get permission.  I could easily imagine one of my officers walking out of the office and accidentally dropping one of these small thumb drives somewhere and not knowing it.

Important to know is that none of these electronic files contained a Classified Document cover.  They were electronic.  And that is how the vast majority of our secrets were kept – electronically.  Rarely were classified documents printed.  We kept them in locked safes in our small secure building if they were printed.  If we wanted to remove one of them and leave the building, we had to put a paper cover on it – denoting the classification – and sign the document out.  That is the proper way.

In the Army Headquarters, the problem was that staff officers (mostly Captains through Colonels) were leaving thumb drives in their computers overnight.  The cleaning crews, foreign nationals (not Iraqi), would pull them out and sell them for extra cash.  Those thumb drives had made their way to the Baghdad open market, where they were sold like any other item.

Bingo.  Our secrets were getting out from sheer stupidity and sloppy security procedures.  Note that the New York Times and other similar news media were getting classified information from other sources.

One of the lessons is that most documents are electronic and therefore difficult to control.  Paper classified documents have their own problems to control.  Another lesson is that not all classified information is paper or electronic.  Our conversations, scribbled notes, notebooks, and meetings sometimes contained a spectrum of classified information (Confidential to Top Secret and up).  Securing sensitive information requires tight, formal procedures.  Being in a combat zone is not a reason to relax those standards.

And then later we discovered that Soldiers were transferring Secret documents from Secret computers to Unclassified computers using Compact Disks (CDs).  If things can go wrong, they will go wrong.

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Please read my books:

  1. “55 Rules for a Good Life,” on Amazon (link here).
  2. “Our Longest Year in Iraq,” on Amazon (link here).
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

27 thoughts on “A Failure to Secure Classified Documents

  1. Max Foster

    I guess that I should not be surprised here by what Gen. Satterfield has written. As of news this morning, the “government” has found more classified documents at Pres. Joe Biden’s residence. Please don’t be surprised. Yes, he did take the documents, and yes he did store them improperly, but what we should get from this is that the “government” does a shitty job of controlling classified information and the average person has no clue about what classified documents are or what was in those documents Biden (or Trump) had in their possession.

    Reply
    1. Mikka Solarno

      Max, as usual, you’re right and we should be taking classified documents “more seriously.” Unlike Pres Biden who does not take it seriously (despite what he says publically), his actions certainly undercut what he says.

      Reply
    2. Pooch T.

      The takeaway from this is that Biden is corrupt and stupid. To use a term favored by Gen. Satterfield, he is an “idiot.”

      Reply
  2. Jeff Blackwater

    Funny discussion below on the hypocrisy of Joe Biden. 👀✔😉👌👀

    Reply
  3. Jerome Smith

    Great article, Gen. Satterfield. Now I see why you say in combat that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. For those new to this leadership website, get a copy of “Our Longest Year in Iraq” and learn about this sort of issue that happened every day. it’s Gen. S’s experience and how our soldiers dealt with problems that you and I can only imagine.
    https://www.amazon.com/Our-Longest-Year-Iraq-Construction/dp/1737915510/

    Reply
  4. KRause

    First Donald Trump and then Joe Biden. Why is the DOJ not prosecuting Biden and throwing his classified documents on the floor for a photo op? Just asking for a friend. 😉

    Reply
    1. Willie Strumburger

      What Biden is previewing for everyone is the fact that he knows that the special counsel will not hold him accountable & will conclude, at some point down the road, that it was all just much ado about very little. We all know that’s how it’s going to turn out for him. For Trump, on the other hand … It’s sure good to be a Democrat. Snark

      Reply
      1. Fred Weber

        I would be more inclined to give Biden the benefit of the doubt if he and his DOJ hadn’t persecuted Trump over similar issues. What goes around comes around, and I’m enjoying the irony.

        Reply
          1. Wife

            Joe Biden is an idiot but we don’t want to speak that too loudly.

        1. Guns are Us

          Come on man, has not everyone at sometime or another misfiled top secret scif only documents in their garage? Just misfiling is about as believable as Biden taking on Corn Pop or any of the other tales he tells.

          Reply
      2. Raw Hide

        While WE see the hypocrisy and double standard, those on the left do not.. For them, this is nothing but a GIANT ‘nothing-burger’ and in fact, is more a right-wing ginned up issue more than anything else. Seriously.

        Reply
        1. The Golly Woman from EHT

          After two weeks of being mocked for their dual system of Justice, the FBI swung into action and searched Biden’s Delaware home. Of course, the equal application of justice did not require a midnight raid with a SWAT team, a camera-team from CNN in tow to document the event. But just what are we to make of it?

          Reply
          1. Army Captain

            Ouch, too hot to touch this comment. I’m sure you’re just asking for a friend.

    2. Audrey

      Obama signaled his intent on an issue in the media as well. Too bad Old Joe is stupid and white, otherwise he could pull of the brazen dictate to Hur. It might still work, but it’s way too obvious. IMO.

      Reply
      1. Army Captain

        Don’t expect anything to come of this. All this DOJ “action” is purely for show.

        Reply
        1. The Toad

          The big problem for the DC Deep State is “The Streisand Effect” & “can of worms” that some democrat partisan at the National Archives started in an effort to “get” The Bad Orange Man. For six months they said that this is worse than “9/11, Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust combined!! We demand action!!!!” Now the rest of the population is saying “We were told that these violations are “worse than 9/11, Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust combined!! We demand action!!!” The Streisand Effect is brutal and unforgiving and Biden is right in the middle of a Streisand Effect Tornado.

          Reply
        2. Unwoke Dude

          … and the FBI. Not me saying this …. I’m not guilty of saying the Pres is an idiot. That was “Wife”. Sorry to point the finger. Oh, I’m not being tortured for that admission.

          Reply
  5. Frontier Man

    Every classified system is prone to human error. That will never go away.

    Reply
    1. Statin Man

      The system that keeps out everyone who does not need entry, also keeps out everybody. There is no perfect security, but you don’t want to promote stupid.

      Reply
      1. Rusty D

        Keep all humans out, yep, that works every time. Oh, my bad. ha ha ha ha……

        Reply

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