What do we learn from photos of US patio diplomacy?

By Tara McKelvey
White House reporter

image copyrightFacebook/Richard DeAgazio

Photos of the president at Mar-a-Lago, discussing North Korea, don't reveal state secrets. But security experts say the photos show a too-casual approach to presidential business.

With the new administration, the nuclear codes are safe, say security experts. But is decorum at grave risk?

In one photo that appeared on Facebook, US President Donald Trump and Prime Minster Shinzo Abe of Japan appear to be talking about a grave matter, a North Korean ballistic missile test, at the president's club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida.

image copyrightFacebook/Richard DeAgazio

"HOLY MOLY !!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan," wrote Richard DeAgazio, a member at the private club, on his Facebook page. That page has since been deleted.

DeAgazio posted another picture, a selfie with the service member who carries the so-called nuclear football - or codes used to launch a nuclear strike - poses for a shot.

None of these men seemed to be breaking the law or revealing classified information. White House spokesman Sean Spicer later told reporters that the president was talking with the prime minister and aides about "news conference logistics" - not state secrets.

In addition it's not the first time that an image of the nuclear football - or someone carrying it - has appeared in the public domain. "It's been photographed a gazillion times," said Johns Hopkins University's Mark Stout, a former CIA analyst.

image copyrightFacebook
image captionTrump and Abe also stopped by a wedding being hosted at Mar A Lago

In other words, the images contained nothing shocking or revelatory, and the contents of the photos didn't harm national security.

Jason Chaffetz, the House oversight committee chairman, has requested that the White House provide more information about how classified information was handled at Mar a Lago, including what documents were illuminated at the table using mobile-phone flashlights, what classified information was discussed at dinner, and how guests and staff of the club are vetted.

The pictures did hint at something about the culture of the new administration - the photos seemed to show that the president and his aides have a super-casual way of talking about important matters of government.

In this way the pictures provided a glimpse into the inner workings of the White House. This insight - for security experts and for many other people, too - came as something of a surprise.

"It's a rookie mistake," said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists's project on government secrecy. He said that the photos "are indicative of unusual informality".

image copyrightFacebook/Richard DeAgazio
image captionTrump takes a call during dinner at his private club

Aftergood said that a more experienced team of officials would've probably have moved to a secure location to talk about North Korea, especially after hearing about a ballistic missile test.

The decision to talk about the issue over dinner was not a criminal offence - but part of a process that the president and his aides are now going through. He said they're settling into their jobs and learning how to operate within the government, and chances are they'll become more adept at the details of government work over time.

Other security experts said they agreed that dinnertime discussion about logistics of a press event, even about a sensitive subject such as North Korea, was not an egregious mistake. But from a PR perspective, it's probably not a good idea.

The pictures cast the president and his aides in an unfavourable light - and made them look "amateurish", said Aftergood.

Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy assistant secretary at the department of homeland security, used a different word to describe the image that was conveyed by the pictures from Mar-a-Lago:

"Cheesy," he said. "But I knew that about the president already."

Follow @Tara_Mckelvey

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