Retired MacDill airman admits holding classified documents at Tampa home

Robert Birchum, a retired lieutenant colonel, pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he unlawfully retained national defense information.
A KC-135 refueling aircraft flies over the Dale Mabry entrance of MacDill Air Force Base while coming in for a landing in Tampa in 2021.
A KC-135 refueling aircraft flies over the Dale Mabry entrance of MacDill Air Force Base while coming in for a landing in Tampa in 2021. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]
Published Feb. 22, 2023|Updated Feb. 22, 2023

TAMPA — A former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer once stationed at MacDill Air Force Base admitted in federal court Tuesday that he kept classified national security documents in his Tampa home.

Robert Birchum, 55, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson to formally plead guilty Tuesday afternoon to a charge of unlawful retention of national defense information.

The charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence, but federal guidelines likely will suggest a penalty of less than that.

Birchum’s attorney, Eric Roper, declined to discuss specifics of the case, but said more details would be made public as the sentencing hearing approaches.

“We look forward to that day in a couple months where we can go to court and present a full picture,” Roper said.

The case comes amid ongoing federal probes into the discovery of classified documents at the homes of former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and President Joe Biden.

Birchum, clad in a formal Air Force uniform, sat beside his lawyer at a defense table during the hearing Tuesday. He breathed heavily, opening and closing his fist a few times, as he quietly answered a series of standard questions from the judge meant to ensure he understood his guilty plea and its consequences.

He served in the Air Force from 1988 to 2018, retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He held different jobs in intelligence, according to his plea agreement, including those of intelligence officer and chief of combat intelligence for an unspecified Air Force group.

Before he retired, Birchum’s assignments involved handling classified intelligence information for the Joint Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the plea agreement states. Because of his assignments, he held a “top secret” security clearance, which gave him access to classified information.

On Jan. 24, 2017, someone told Air Force investigators that Birchum had stored classified information on a computer thumb drive in his Tampa home, and that at least one other person had accessed it, the agreement states. Investigators searched Birchum’s home the same day. They seized the thumb drive, a computer hard drive and 48 paper documents that had classified information on them.

A review of the thumb drive found 135 files that held information variously labeled as “top secret,” “secret” or “confidential,” the agreement states. The computer hard drive also held 10 documents marked “secret.”

After they searched his home, investigators also seized an external hard drive that Birchum had in his temporary living quarters overseas. It was found to have 117 additional files containing classified national defense information, the agreement states. A search of a storage pod at his Tampa home also turned up 28 paper documents labeled “secret.”

The plea agreement quotes nondisclosure documents that Birchum signed during his career in which he acknowledged that he understood the special confidence and trust the government placed in him to handle classified information. The documents also included an acknowledgement that the unauthorized disclosure of negligent handling of such information “could cause irreparable injury to the United States or be used to advantage by a foreign nation.”

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Some of the information that Birchum had access to concerned Defense Department locations throughout the world, explanations of the Air Force’s capabilities and vulnerabilities and ways that the Air Force gathers and uses intelligence, according to the plea agreement.

There is no allegation that Birchum did anything other than illegally retain the sensitive documents, his attorney said. He signed a plea agreement declaring his intention to plead guilty shortly after prosecutors filed a formal charge against him.