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As far as I understand, the illegal access to classified documents in the US is regulated by the Espionage Act. This old act has since been amended to cover electronic copies of classified information.

However, I still do not understand why spies would prefer the original paper versions of any classified documents versus, say, photocopies or electronic scans of those?

From a naïve perspective, a spy tasked to get access to classified materials would have access to those documents for a brief period of time to make copies as quickly as possible, put the papers back where it belongs and to conceal the very fact of accessing it. The last thing this person would do is collect a stockpile of classified document that literally extends from floor to ceiling, like Trump is accused of:

Documents floor to ceiling
Image: US Department of Justice, via BBC

This is confirmed by historical evidence:

  • Atomic spies like Morris Cohen used radio, Klaus Fuchs used sketches and photo copies, etc. I did not find any publicly available evidence suggesting that those spies literally sent original classified documents to the KGB.

  • Hosts on Russian state propaganda outlet openly claim that "Moscow is already studying" the documents they recently got access to. (I assume they are studying the copies as the originals seem to be with the FBI).

This raises the question:

Why would a spying party need the genuine paper originals (with numbered pages, pen-written signatures, and wet seals)? How would this be better (for the spying party) than the scanned contents plus the confidence that the document is genuine?


Related questions

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    How exactly is a paper photocopy different then a paper copy of a document? Or how is one printing of a paper document different than another paper copy of a document? Unless you are dealing with a document that has technology in it to prevent copying of it isn't a photocopy exactly the same as the paper document? I am not asking because I want to know rather I am asking because I am trying to understand for the purpose of understanding your question.
    – Joe W
    Jun 10 at 15:18
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    Do you have any evidence that they are preferred by spies? In a situation like this a spy would hardly turn down such a trove just because it's inconvenient.
    – Cadence
    Jun 10 at 15:20
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    @JoeW espionage tag excerpt has to disagree with you: "Espionage (also called spying) is the process states use to gather intelligence on each other." Jun 10 at 16:24
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    @StuartF this site is not about football. It is about governments, policies and political processes. Espionage is a political process that occurs between the states and its governments. If you concern that the espionage is about something else, please feel free to clarify it on Politics Meta. Jun 10 at 16:50
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    Your entire question revolves around the idea that physical copies might be preferred or needed by spies, but why do you think that's the case? If espionage laws about physical documents were stricter than digital or if you quoted a spy saying it's preferred then it'd definitely be a good question, but without that you could ask this exact same question about things like the font sizes or ink colors spies prefer.
    – Giter
    Jun 10 at 17:08

3 Answers 3

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Who and what you can trust is a fairly well-known issue when it comes to spying.

If you think about it, it's exposed to a lot of the same issues that security of the information traveling on the Internet is exposed to.

Because it's a well-known espionage technique to let false document be discovered by an adversary to mislead that adversary. The party involved in the deception may not even be the party that owns the originals. It maybe a 3rd party attempting to influence another 3rd party.

Anything that's not the original is easier to fake.

The original can be verified to be genuine by forensic examination (analyzing paper content, chemical composition of the ink, known imperfections in the stamp, traces of chemical exposure of the paper to the air, fingerprints, etc).

Ok, "verified" is too strong a word. It can be used to increase confidence.

The originals won't necessarily have all this information. But any extra information adds to the certainty that it is genuine.

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From the perspective of espionage, why would the spying party need genuine paper originals with numbered pages, pen-written signatures, and wet seals?

They wouldn't.

How this would be better (for the spying party) than the scanned contents plus the confidence that the document is genuine?

It wouldn't.

The question seems to be considering the following line of reasoning:

  • Trump stockpiled lots of documents
  • Stockpiling documents is something that a spy wouldn't do
  • Trump, therefore, must not be a spy
  • Trump, therefore, must not have violated the espionage act.

To which the response is: of course Trump isn't a spy. But lots of things that are made illegal by the espionage act are things that you wouldn't expect a spy to do, but rather are things that could make a spy's job easier, whether intentionally or otherwise, such as handling information carelessly or even just retaining it in one's possession without authorization.

Also note that the law was written not only before the development of electronic information storage but also before the classification system existed, so most of the crimes defined by the law do not have the classification status of the information as an element. Instead, most sections of the law use phrases such as "any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information, relating to the national defens."

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  • re: "The question seems to be considering the following line of reasoning" The question does not make that implication. It doesn't even make that suggestion.
    – wrod
    Jun 10 at 22:49
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I don't think anyone believes that Trump was or is engaged in literal espionage. The most likely reasons for Trump taking these documents are:

  1. Vanity: Trump wanting what amounts to unique collectibles that he could show off privately to impress people
  2. Economics: Trump wanting to retain access to information that he might profit from through foreknowledge or leverage
  3. Narcissism: Trump wanting to preserve the conceit that he is still (in fact) the rightful president, with rightful access to national secrets

Whatever the reasons he might have wanted the documents, the issue was compounded by Trump's overweening sense of entitlement. He is accustomed to taking what he wants — guided only by his own internal moral compass, such as it is — and using money, lawyers, courts, and lots of public screaming to fend off anyone who dares to challenge his right to take. It's a particular teleological form of (a)moral reasoning in which rules only apply to those who cannot manipulate, escape, or overwhelm them. It's all he's ever known.

But form the perspective of the Justice Department, rules are universals that apply to everyone, and Trump violated them. To them this is the same situation as the Air National Guardsman who posted classified documents on an internet chat site, just for the entertainment of his friends. That Guardsman wasn't actively engaged in espionage either, he just put classified materials in a place where actual spies could have comparatively easy access to it. His selfishly innocent intentions didn't save him from prosecution, nor should Trump's.

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    Originally, my question was carefully formulated to exclude any Trump-specific notion (I've been around for long enough to know that anything related to Trump receives unhealthy reaction here; your answer was downvoted minutes after it was posted). The question has been edited by another user since then removing the preamble. While I'm assuming that another user had good intent, it made your answer useless. I'm sorry for that. Jun 11 at 18:46
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine: no worries; I’ll delete the answer if I decide it doesn’t work. But neither of us is naive enough to pretend this question wasn’t written with Trump in mind. By avoiding him you end up sounding like an apologist for him. Better for you to take the bull by the horns and then defuse it than to hide it behind oblique language. Jun 11 at 19:34
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine: and downvotes don’t really bother me, as long as I think I’m answering the question correctly. But I may not be, so I’ll look at that Jun 11 at 19:37
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine: It's not just the picture (though that surely didn't help), but the way you've framed things. For instance, when you assert that a spy would likely make quick copies and cover his tracks, and then vocally wonder why someone would blatantly hang onto originals, it implies (perhaps unwittingly) that Trump is not acting like a spy and thus not subject to espionage laws. That's why I started out by saying that no one thinks Trump is factually a spy. The whole 'spy' thing is kind of a red herring, since the real issue is control of sensitive information. Jun 11 at 20:30
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine: I mean, an honest reading of your question as written would start like: "An idealized spy would do one thing, Trump did something else entirely." But where does your question go from there? The natural direction (which you don't take) is to ask if Trump isn't really a spy. Instead you ask why an idealized spy would do what Trump did. I'm sure someone could make up a credible reason (speculation is easy) but it's a strange direction for the question to go. You see what I mean? Jun 11 at 20:37

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