A whistleblower’s complaint alleging that records of a call made by President Donald Trump was handled in an unusually secretive way has shone a spotlight on how such calls are monitored – and how they can be hidden.
Who listens to the call?
Traditionally, officials from the US national security council (NSC) brief the president before a call with a foreign leader. Then the briefers sit in the Oval Office with the president while he speaks on the phone with the foreign leader. “At least two members of the NSC are usually present,” according to USA Today.
There will also be officials sitting in a secure room in another part of the White House, listening to the president’s call and taking notes. Their notes are known as a “memorandum of telephone conversation”, and like many things in Washington it has an abbreviation: “memcon”.
The president’s calls with foreign leaders are also transcribed by computers. Afterwards, as former White House officials explain, the human note takers compare their impressions with an electronic version of the call. The notes from the officials and from the computerised transcriptions are combined into one document. This transcript may not be perfect, but it is done as carefully as time and resources allow.
What happens if a transcript is stamped ‘top secret’?
Classifying the transcript of a call as “top secret” means that only individuals in the US government with the highest level of security clearance can see the material.
As former officials explain, these transcripts are shared through a system known by an acronym, Jwics, which stands for Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, a network that is used by people who work in the intelligence services.