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Former MacDill airman gets 3 years in prison for keeping classified documents

Robert Birchum, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, admitted he kept more than 300 classified documents in his Tampa home and among his personal belongings.
 
A KC-135 refueling aircraft flies over the Dale Mabry entrance of MacDill Air Force Base while coming in for a landing in Tampa. A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former Air Force intelligence officer at MacDill who kept hundreds of classified documents in his Tampa home to three years in prison.
A KC-135 refueling aircraft flies over the Dale Mabry entrance of MacDill Air Force Base while coming in for a landing in Tampa. A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former Air Force intelligence officer at MacDill who kept hundreds of classified documents in his Tampa home to three years in prison. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]
Published June 1, 2023|Updated June 1, 2023

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 a requirement that he comply with mental health treatment. Birchum was also fined $25,000.

The sentence was less than the 6½ years prosecutors asked for — which was the low end of what federal guidelines suggested — but far from the probationary penalty his defense lawyer had sought.

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 his criminal conduct occurred 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 unlawful retention of national defense information.

The judge’s decision came two weeks after an earlier hearing in which she held off on imposing a sentence to allow more time to research the outcome of similar cases. Lawyers cited a handful of other cases in which defendants were convicted of retaining classified information, noting differences and similarities to Birchum’s case.

In court, lawyers made references to “other prominent individuals” and allusions to investigations involving classified material held by former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden. Although those investigations have not produced criminal charges, and thus were not directly compared with Birchum’s crime, they still loomed 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 problems and said his possession of the classified material was the result of “a series of mistakes on my part.”

Birchum, 55, was a career airman once stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. He served close to 30 years in the U.S. 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 various roles, including as an intelligence officer and as the chief of combat intelligence for a special Air Force group, according to court documents. He held a top secret security clearance. His assignments involved handling classified intelligence information for the Joint Special Operations Command, the Special Operations Command and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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In 2017, Air Force investigators received notice that he had classified information at his Tampa home. A search turned up more than 300 classified documents stored in his home, saved on various storage devices, kept in a storage pod in his driveway and in his overseas living quarters. The documents, marked “top secret,” “secret,” and “confidential,” included information about Defense Department locations throughout the world, explanations of the Air Force’s capabilities and vulnerabilities, and the ways in which the Air Force gathers and uses intelligence.

In court, a prosecutor argued that the information, if publicly disclosed, could endanger the lives of military personnel and put America’s allies at risk.

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

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

“Your comments did not express the remorse I had hoped,” the judge said. “They expressed more of excuses in my mind.”

Birchum, who wore a military uniform to the earlier hearing, on Thursday donned a civilian suit with a tie featuring the American flag. As the judge addressed him, he gazed downward.

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

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