The afternoon of June 1, Robert Birchum, a former Air Force Lt. Colonel assigned to Joint Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $25,000. His crime? Over the course of many years he hoarded national defense information. In all he was found to have retained 300 documents of which 43 were at the Top Secret level.

Birchum’s plea to the court

Birchum retired at age 55 in 2018 following 29 years of service. He asked the court for leniency due to his health issues. In fact, the pre-sentencing sentencing memorandum filed by his attorney asked that he be given probation with a condition of home confinement. This memorandum also noted that “if incarcerated, Mr. Birchum would have his disability compensation payments reduced to 10% and no longer receive continuing care from his medical providers via the VA and that responsibility would fall on to the Bureau of Prisons.”

Birchum’s crime

Birchum pleaded guilty to the unlawful retention of national defense information. He had also agreed to abandon ownership of the computer hardware seized at his home and overseas quarters, which consisted of a variety of thumb and hard drives seized during searches which occurred in 2017.

Over the course of his career, Birchum served as an intelligence officer, including as the Chief of Combat Intelligence for an Air Force group, with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). In a nutshell, his career took him to the heart of some of the most sensitive national defense information, TS/SCI. This information included the “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.”

See something, say something

It was January 24, 2017, when the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) received a tip indicating that Birchum was storing information to a thumb drive. AFOSI was also told that “at least one other individual had access to, and actually accessed, classified information stored on the thumb drive.” That same day a lawful search of Birchum’s residence was conducted and numerous classified documents were recovered. Birchum’s thumb drive and Dell computer’s hard drive were seized.

A review of the drives revealed that Birchum had taken Top Secret information some which were marked Alternative Compensatory Control Measures (ACCM). The AFOSI noted that some of the documents which Birchum had squirreled away discussed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) capabilities, method of collection and identify targets’ vulnerabilities. AFOSI then searched the quarters which Birchum used at Bagram AB, Afghanistan and found an additional external drive containing classified information. They also searched his storage pod (at his residence) and found more classified information. Birchum not only hoarded classified information, he had it spread hither and yon.

In January 2018, almost a year after the search of Birchum’s residence and his quarters abroad, the Department of the Air Force, Headquarters Eighteenth Air Force (AMC) issued a Letter of Reprimand to Birchum.  The LOR was issued by USAF Brigadier General Darren V. James and Birchum signed that he had received and understood the reprimand on January 11, 2018.  The LOR noted the following key points:

  • AFOSI seized a thumb drive containing over 900 megabytes of classified material dating from 2002-2008
  • A search of his dorm room at Bagram AB, Afghanistan found additional devices containing classified information at the SECRET, SECRET ACCM and TOP SECRET ACCM from not only the DoD, but also from elements of the intelligence community.
  • He misled the USCENTCOM Commander when he explained how he “accidentally” packed classified materials when he left JSOC.
  • Took classified information in 2004 while stationed at Fort Bragg, NC and working as USSOCOM Chief of the Combat Intelligence Division.
  • 1998 – assigned to Beale AFB – he took classified material concerning U2 missions – his rank First Lieutenant
  • 2000  – Now a Captain, responsible for near real time U-2 imagery;
  • 2001-2002 as Chief of AF ISR – he took classified documents from this timeframe.
  • 2003-2004 assigned Deputy Chief of Staff, Air and Space operations – Pentagon – directed ‘all” intelligence activities for “Aviation Tactics Evaluation Group” – became a Major in 2005 – he took classified from this time frame
  • 2008 – Now a Major and assigned to USSOCOM Special Operations Forces, in 2010 while still there became a Lt. Colonel. He took information from this timeframe
  • 2017 Deployed to Afghanistan where access to IC information pertaining to DoD and other sensitive special operations was also squirreled away by Birchum
  • UCMJ Article 92 – dereliction of duty and Article 133 conduct unbecoming of an officer

DoJ’s sentence recommendation

The Department of Justice noted how the average sentence of the five cases they proffered up as similar in nature to the court was 49.8 months. They also noted that none of those cases was a “high-level commissioned military intelligence officer” who had “mishandled classified NDI for over a decade.” The DOJ continued “the United States seeks a meaningful sentence of incarceration, at the low end of the guideline range. The Defendant’s crime was deliberate, calculated and long lived.”


The sentenced given to Birchum was lenient by any measure given the expanse of his hoarding of classified information, and in line with the prosecutors request that the judge look to the lower end of the scale.

This will send a mild message of deterrence to others who are in positions of trust, who are expected to protect the information entrusted to them, and who may be thinking that having a “souvenir” from their hay-day within the military is worth the risk. They will now factor into their calculus, is three years worth having an item from their past for their hero wall?

Insider program success or failure?

As in so many instances when information is purloined and retained by those with natural access, it took another individual who saw an anomaly (Birchum copying classified information to a thumb drive) to recognize the action taking place and then calling it out. Yet this anomalous behavior should have been detected long before the “tip” received by AFOSI in 2017. The documented start to his hoarding based on documents retrieved was 1998. It is hard to believe that over the course of almost 20 years, it wasn’t until 2017 that someone saw something and reported it.

No doubt we should consider ourselves fortunate. Had it not been for the tip received in January 2017, one may assume that Birchum’s hoarding of classified materials would have continued undetected and highly sensitive national defense information spanning almost two decades would have been scattered here and there by Birchum for his reading pleasure and sharing with individuals who had no need to know.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of