Ex-MacDill airman gets 3 years in prison for keeping classified documents

TAMPA — A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former Air Force intelligence officer who kept hundreds of classified documents in his Tampa home to three years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle also ordered Robert Birchum to complete three years of supervision upon his release from prison, with the requirement that he comply with mental health treatment. Birchum was also fined $25,000.

The sentence was less than the 6 and a half years requested by prosecutors – which was the low of what the federal guidelines suggested – but far from the probationary sentence his defense attorney had requested.

In imposing the sentence, the judge noted that Birchum’s retention of the classified material was apparently not done with a nefarious motive. But she also mentioned that her criminal conduct happened repeatedly over a long period of time. She echoed a prosecutor’s comment that Birchum’s actions were the result of “hubris.”

“You did it because you could do it,” Mizelle told him.

Birchum pleaded guilty in February to a charge of unlawfully withholding national defense information.

The judge’s decision came two weeks after an earlier hearing in which she delayed imposing a sentence to allow more time to seek the outcome of similar cases. Lawyers cited a handful of other cases in which defendants were found guilty of withholding classified information, noting differences and similarities with Birchum’s case.

In court, lawyers made references to “other prominent figures” and hints at investigations involving classified documents held by former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State State Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden. Although these investigations did not produce criminal charges and therefore were not directly compared to the Birchum crime, they still hung over the case.

In court last month, Birchum spoke of his struggles with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, an effect of his combat experiences. He mentioned memory issues and said his possession of the classified material was the result of “a series of errors on my part”.

Birchum, 55, was a career airman once stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. He served nearly 30 years in the US Air Force, retiring in 2018 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. His time in the service included multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He served in a variety of roles, including as an intelligence officer and as the chief of combat intelligence for an Air Force special task force, according to court documents. He held a “top secret” security clearance. His assignments were to handle classified intelligence information for Joint Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In 2017, Air Force investigators received information that he had classified information at his home in Tampa. A search revealed over 300 classified documents stored in his home, saved on various storage devices, kept in a storage capsule in his driveway and in his living quarters abroad. The documents, marked “top secret”, “secret”, and “confidential”, included information on Department of Defense locations around the world, explanations of Air Force capabilities and vulnerabilities, and how the Air Force collects and uses intelligence.

In court, a prosecutor argued that the information, if made public, could endanger the lives of service members and endanger America’s allies.

The judge noted Birchum’s long service to the country, but said his status as a high-level military officer meant he should have known better. She spoke of deterrence and the need to demonstrate to the military community that mishandling classified information has serious consequences.

She also expressed her disappointment with what Birchum had to say in court.

“Your comments did not express the remorse I was hoping for,” Judge said. “They expressed more excuses in my mind.”

Birchum, who wore a military uniform during the previous hearing, on Thursday donned a civilian suit with a tie emblazoned with the American flag. As the judge addressed him, he looked down.

Asked by the judge if he understood his right to appeal the sentence, he remained silent. He mumbled something to his lawyer, Eric Roper, who then told the judge he understood.

The judge ordered Birchum to report to jail on July 17.

Leave a Comment