A retired Air Force intelligence officer accepted a plea deal with federal prosecutors last year admitting to illegally possessing hundreds of top secret and classified documents, according to court records filed Friday.
Lt. Col. Robert Birchum, whose career stretched from 1986 to 2018, worked in various jobs in intelligence and served as chief of combat intelligence "for a certain Air Force group," according to court documents. Prior to his retirement, he also worked with classified intelligence information at Joint Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
But on Jan. 24, 2017, the year before his retirement, the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations received information that Birchum had been storing classified information on a thumb drive at his home in Tampa, Florida, the plea deal details. Investigators raided his home that same day, seizing the thumb drive, a computer, a hard drive and numerous paper documents.
The revelation about the retired Air Force officer's plea deal comes amid intense public interest in the handling of sensitive information as federal investigators probe President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence’s possession of classified material.
Birchum's attorney, Christopher Eric Roper, a former Navy judge advocate and lawyer who has a practice in Jacksonville, Florida, told Military.com during a phone interview Wednesday that he wouldn’t provide too many details about the case but said the most recent high-profile incidents involving classified material are bringing a lot of attention.
"We are looking forward to showing a complete picture of [Birchum's] 30-year career, and we're mindful of the other cases of national attention as we plan to present a full argument at our sentencing hearing," Roper told Military.com. "It's been in the works for a while now, prior to these other national cases."
Birchum pleaded guilty to one count of willful retention of national defense information, which can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. He is due in court Feb. 21 for an initial appearance and change of plea hearing.
In total, 135 documents "containing classified national defense information" were found on Birchum's thumb drive, according to the plea deal, which was signed on Aug. 26, 2022 but made public in a Friday court filing.
In particular, two documents on the thumb drive were presentations on the National Security Agency's collection methods and also identified targets' vulnerabilities. The plea deal states "their unauthorized release could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States."
Several days after the initial raid, on Jan. 30, 2017, Air Force special investigators seized Birchum's "personal Iomega hard drive that the defendant had possessed outside of a SCIF in his temporary quarters overseas" where they found 117 additional files containing classified
national defense information, according to the plea agreement. Many sensitive and classified documents are allowed to be handled only inside a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, a highly secure room where secret information is closely monitored and stored.
Some of the classified documents "concerned Department of Defense locations throughout the world, detailed explanations of the Air Force's capabilities and vulnerabilities and, among other things, the methods by which the Air Force gathers, transmits, and uses information observed by various Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance ("ISR") platforms," per the plea deal.
On Feb. 3, 2017, law enforcement searched a storage pod in Tampa, where they located another 28 paper documents that were tagged as containing secret information.
"Based on his intelligence-related official duties and, among other things, his execution of multiple NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] throughout his Air Force career, the defendant knew that the information contained in the above-described files was classified national defense information and that he was not authorized to possess or retain those materials in his house," the plea deal states.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.