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As Trump Faces Charges, Kansas City Case Shows how Seriously Feds Take Classified Docs

Jonathan Shorman, Kacen Bayless

The defendant is accused of illegally taking hundreds of classified documents with secrets about U.S. counterterrorism investigations and intelligence efforts — and keeping them at home. But it’s not former President Donald Trump. For the past two years, a former intelligence analyst in the FBI’s Kansas City Division has been at the center of a federal criminal case involving allegations of hoarding classified documents. A federal grand jury indicted the analyst, Dodge City resident Kendra Kingsbury, in May 2021, accusing her of two counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) — the same Espionage Act charge Trump faces. Kingsbury, whose case is in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, is set to be sentenced next week in Kansas City after pleading guilty to both counts in October. She will potentially be the first defendant sentenced for violating the law against willful retention of national defense information since Trump’s indictment. The prosecution of Kingsbury offers a window into how seriously the Department of Justice takes mishandling of classified information, and how aggressively federal prosecutors pursue those who unlawfully retain sensitive documents.

As Trump prepares for his first court appearance on Tuesday, the Kansas City case underscores the legal stakes confronting the former president. “Her situation has been publicized locally and nationally — garnering mention alongside prominent political figures whose conduct appears uncannily analogous to Ms. Kingsbury’s,” Marc Ermine, an assistant federal public defender who is representing Kingsbury, wrote in a sentencing memo filed in court on Monday. One of the prosecutors on the Kingsbury case has also participated in the investigation of Trump. David Raskin, a national security prosecutor based in Kansas City, joined the Justice Department’s team investigating Trump, The Washington Post reported last fall. The indictment of Kingsbury alleged that between 2004 and 2017, she had access to sensitive government documents at a secure area of the FBI’s Kansas City office, as well as through secure government computer systems. The indictment specifically accused Kingsbury of retaining 20 documents, mostly intelligence notes and internal correspondence. The indictment didn’t outline a motive, but a sentencing memo filed by prosecutors on Monday says Kingsbury’s phone made and received calls with phone numbers associated with the subjects of counterterrorism investigations. The memo says investigators haven’t been able to determine why Kingsbury contacted the individuals or why they called her. What’s Your KCQ? Which Kansas City-centric question should we tackle? Read More A prosecutor said in court last year that Kingsbury, who was 48 at the time of the indictment and had worked as an FBI intelligence analyst for more than 12 years, unlawfully retained about 386 classified documents in total. When the indictment was unsealed, the Justice Department portrayed Kingsbury’s crimes as a grave betrayal of trust that jeopardized national security. “Kingsbury is alleged to have violated our nation’s trust by stealing and retaining classified documents in her home for years,”

Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement at the time. “Insider threats are a significant danger to our national security, and we will continue to work relentlessly to identify, pursue and prosecute individuals who pose such a threat.” Kingsbury pleaded guilty to both Espionage Act counts on Oct. 13, 2022, without a formal plea agreement.

Kingsbury’s defense attorney had proposed that she plead guilty to one of the counts in exchange for a dismissal of the other count and consideration of a sentence of probation. The Department of Justice rejected the offer, prosecutor Patrick Edwards said at the hearing, according to a court transcript. “I can say DOJ and the federal government take security of documents VERY seriously,” Stephen McAllister, who was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas under Trump, said in a text message. Prosecutors are asking for a prison sentence of 57 months (4.75 years) and three years of supervised release. Her defense team is asking for probation, noting that she is a caretaker to her 75-year-old mother and that she has a son who will soon graduate high school. Kingsbury’s sentencing is scheduled for June 21 in front of U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Bough. She is represented by the Federal Public Defender’s Office. “We trust that the Court will consider the facts of Ms. Kingsbury’s case — and her as an individual — in determining the appropriate outcome for her,” Ermine, Kingsbury’s lead attorney, said in a statement. Kansas City Chiefs To be sure, there are important differences between Kingsbury’s and Trump’s cases. While both are accused of keeping hundreds of classified documents at home, Trump’s case in some ways is even more serious because he is also accused of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Some of the classified documents at issue in Trump’s case are also more secretive. Prosecutors said Kingsbury had kept secret documents — on hard drives, CDs and other formats — describing intelligence sources and methods related to U.S. government efforts to defend against counterterrorism, counterintelligence and cyber threats. The documents included information on open FBI investigations. Kingsbury was also alleged to have retained documents with information about Al Qaeda members in Africa, including a suspected associate of Osama bin Laden. Other documents focused on the activities of emerging terrorists and their efforts to establish themselves in support of Al Qaeda in Africa. While all the documents Kingsbury is charged with taking were classified at the Secret level, Trump is accused of having Top Secret documents. The indictment alleges Trump had documents related to nuclear weapons and military planning. Trump’s status as a former president — and as the current Republican frontrunner for the office — also underscores the obvious differences between his case and Kingsbury’s.

Trump has cast the investigations of him as a witch hunt. Numerous Republicans have downplayed the indictment as politically-motivated, even though Attorney General Merrick Garland, a Biden appointee, named Special Counsel Jack Smith to insulate the investigation from allegations of political bias. Will Scharf, a former assistant U.S. Attorney from 2020 to 2022 who is running for Missouri attorney general as a Republican, said the Department of Justice has a longstanding policy against bringing new cases or committing “overt investigative acts” against political figures during an election to avoid the appearance of politics in a prosecution. However, the state-level Republican nominating contests don’t begin until 2024 and the presidential election itself is a year-and-a-half away. The Department of Justice was also investigating Trump before he announced his candidacy in November. “To bring a case like this against a leading candidate for the presidency smacks of politics and will decimate public faith in our system of law enforcement,” Scharf said in a statement, echoing the views of many Republicans. But Kingsbury’s case and others strongly suggest not indicting Trump would have been an extraordinary decision by prosecutors given the alleged facts.

Earlier this month, former Air Force intelligence officer Robert L. Birchum was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $25,000 for unlawfully retaining classified documents. Birchum, of Tampa, Florida, took more than 300 classified files or documents, including 30 Top Secret items, and kept them at his home, his overseas officer’s quarters, and in a storage pod in his driveway.

In 2021, former U.S. Air Force contractor Izaak Vincent Kemp pleaded guilty to taking 112 classified documents from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to his home. He was sentenced to a year in prison. Kingsbury had received training on handling classified materials, the indictment said, and was advised that unauthorized disclosure of secret information could endanger national security.

It’s unclear whether Trump as president received formal training on document security, but the Department of Justice sought an indictment only after the federal government asked several times for Trump to return the documents and, prosecutors allege, the former president sought to shield them from disclosure. Barry Grissom, who was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas in the Department of Justice under former President Barack Obama, in an interview echoed McAllister, saying the DOJ takes classified documents very seriously. Grissom said that when he became the top federal prosecutor in the state, he was brought into a sensitive compartmented information facility — SCIF — where classified information is viewed and told that the information in the room couldn’t be shared. “You cannot disclose this to anyone,” Grissom said, recalling what he was told. “Not now — not never.”

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