The Extra-Secret White House Computer System, Explained

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WASHINGTON — The whistle-blower who revealed President Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine’s leader to open investigations that could benefit him politically 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 guarded government secrets.

In his complaint, the whistle-blower cited White House officials who portrayed the storage of the call record in that system as “solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive — rather than national security sensitive — information” and labeled it an “abuse.” Here is how the restricted storage system works, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen former National Security Council staff members who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Most of the time, the National Security Council — the foreign policy arm of the White House — memorializes presidential phone or video calls with foreign heads of state on the so-called TNet system, the officials said. This is a top-secret-level computer network that is the main platform the aides use to do their jobs. It connects with a top-secret network called JWICS, which is more widely used elsewhere in the executive branch.

TNet has access controls and auditing safeguards. For example, it keeps track of who created or uploaded files, who looked at them, who modified them and how and who printed them out. When officials create a “package” — essentially, a new file — in TNet, they can set controls so any colleague who works on a particular subject, like European affairs or counterterrorism, has access.

Officials can store any file that is classified to the top-secret level — the highest classification — so long as it is not “code word,” a term referring to a specialized category of even more delicate top-secret information that officials are permitted to know about only if they have been granted specific access to it.

Officials with a general top-secret security clearance will not be given code-word clearance to learn about covert activities unrelated to their work. For example, an aide working on North Korea policy would not have been told about planning for the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Similarly, files containing intelligence supporting the planned raid were not stored in the ordinary TNet system.

The council also has an even more locked-down system called NICE, for N.S.C. Intelligence Collaboration Environment. NICE appears to be what the whistle-blower was referring to as a “stand alone” computer system managed by the council’s directorate for intelligence programs. One former official said it was better understood as a subdomain of TNet.

Foreign policy aides 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 finding or decision memo about it. When they are done, they would print a copy for the president to sign.

It significantly reduces the number of people who can gain access to it. About only 20 percent of National Security Council staff members are NICE users, one former official said. They can log into the system from their work computers using virtual private network software that limits each of them to using that particular workstation.

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

Using the NICE system to curtail access to the record of Mr. Trump’s call with the leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, may very well be, as the whistle-blower also wrote, a sign “that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.” But calling it an “abuse” appears to be subjective.

Generally, the national security adviser can decide who can see what files. No rule prohibits 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 an abuse — violating a specific prohibition in an executive order governing classified information — to mark something classified at an unjustifiably higher level in order to conceal violations of the law or prevent embarrassment. Here, however, the released call record was merely marked “secret,” a lower level of classification than “top secret.”

According to multiple former officials who have helped create the records, the process typically starts 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 — and then the note-taker takes a first pass at cleaning it up by correcting any obvious garbled moments.

That draft is then passed to a subject-matter expert on the National Security Council staff who was also listening to the call. That specialist — who has a greater familiarity of foreign names and places — edits the record. At the end of the process, the aides give the record to the national security adviser.

Beyond the fact that the memo is not a verbatim transcript, it contains three ellipses where Mr. Trump was speaking — and each in a place where he was asking the Ukrainian president for investigations.

It is not clear if this indicates that Mr. Trump trailed off or that something was cut out of the reconstruction. It is also not clear whether any notes exist by American officials that would indicate whether he said anything more in those spots.

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

It is not clear whether the administration of Mr. Zelensky recorded his call with Mr. Trump. Previous Ukrainian governments did not record calls with world leaders, according to a former senior Ukrainian official familiar with the process. Instead, with high-profile and strategically important foreign officials, Ukrainian leaders would have advisers listen in and take detailed notes, he said.

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

Lara Jakes and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting.