Decades from now, when the government belatedly releases the Trump and Biden purloined records, Americans may well wonder what all the fuss was about.
The document cases tied to the president and his predecessor dramatize what national security experts of every political stripe have known for decades: Far too many government records are classified. Most are classified not to protect sources and methods – the standard intelligence community rationale – but to protect intel analysts against embarrassment or to protect government “secrets” that the public should know.
A famous example is the classification of millions of documents ostensibly tied to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination: Each release of a new trove, most recently last month, has prompted questions about why most of the documents were classified in the first place.
An issue of national security
In examining another American tragedy, the bipartisan 9/11 commission found that far from protecting the United States, excessive classification had left our country vulnerable to the 2001 terror attacks by restricting important intelligence findings about al-Qaida and other jihadist groups to too few essential U.S. security figures.
“What we have learned is that overclassification can also be damaging to national security, or at a minimum, it can lead to second-guessing what might have been if we were only able to get the information in the right hands at the right time,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said at a 2016 House oversight hearing.
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Chaffetz, who retired in 2017, said the government had spent $100 billion over the previous decade on “security classification activities” – much of them unnecessary, and some of them harmful.
When I came to Washington as a correspondent, I was surprised to cover Sens. Patrick Moynihan, a liberal Democrat from New York, and Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, co-sponsoring legislation to streamline the classification system. At a 1997 Senate hearing, each senator dramatically brandished and then read from recently declassified documents that were so innocuous, their readings elicited audience guffaws around the committee room.
The rise of overclassification
You can draw a direct line from the needless classification of material stretching back well over a half-century, deep into the Cold War, to today’s toxic distrust of the government among tens of millions of Americans.
In supporting the Moynihan-Helms bill, The Washington Post editorialized: “Government keeps too many secrets. It keeps material classified far too long. Excessive secrecy is expensive, breeds popular distrust of government and withholds from historians, researchers and the voting public information that is important.”
That measure failed to pass, instead giving rise to a new bureaucracy now at the center of the Trump and Biden imbroglios – the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA for short.
The late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover bears some responsibility for the damage done by overzealous classification. As the first head of the nation’s primary domestic intelligence agency, he turned it into a vast, Soviet-like collection fiefdom that too often had more to do with his personal proclivities and animosities than with the nation’s security.
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To cite just one of many examples, belatedly released records show that he paid informants and planted listening devices to gather evidence of alleged extramarital affairs and communist ties of Martin Luther King Jr.
In July 2021, USA TODAY quoted a Senate report’s conclusion that the Commerce Department had acted as “a rogue, unaccountable police force across multiple presidential administrations” in targeting its Asian American employees. The report found that a departmental division called the Investigations and Threat Management Service had used “overclassification of documents to protect the unit from external scrutiny.”
Three tiers of classification
The federal classification system has three main tiers: Top Secret, Secret and Confidential. The most highly sensitive records are stamped Top Secret and truly need to be closely guarded, seen by a limited number of vetted officials with high-security clearances, in order to protect the United States against real harm by foreign or domestic enemies.
They can be viewed only in SCIFs – Sensitive Compartmented Information facilities that look like giant bank vaults and normally can be accessed only by accredited individuals using eye scans, fingerprints or complex entry codes. But far too many Secret or Confidential documents protect the individual reputations of analysts whose forecasts proved disastrously wrong.
An example is the lead-up to the Iraq War debacle when Vice President Dick Cheney made unprecedented personal visits to Langley to pressure senior CIA officials to alter intel assessments in order to support a U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The Moynihan-Helms initiative led to the creation of the deliciously named Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. That panel, in turn, helped establish the National Declassification Center as part of NARA – the agency that has exploded in the news in recent months since the FBI search of Mar-A-Lago in Florida.
Each quarter the center dutifully releases thousands of boxes – boxes, not individual documents – of newly declassified material. Even a cursory look at its most recent release in November might elicit new guffaws: For instance, 15 boxes of “foreign media summaries” from Sweden, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. Other newly released records long ago lost whatever sensitivity they once had, such as 150 boxes from 14th Air Force records tied to World War II and the Cold War between 1943 and 1968.
A false sense of importance
As a Moscow correspondent, I would share lunch or drinks with U.S. Embassy diplomats who confided that much of the information they weren’t allowed to tell journalists came from reading those journalists’ articles! Later, as a Pentagon reporter, I was frustrated by military or civilian officials who would tell me things off the record or on background that were either common knowledge, available online or had no possible intelligence value.
In addition to frustrating journalists, the overclassification and extended retention of government records stifle academic research – the very research government policymakers depend on to make informed decisions. A major problem with today’s classification system is that it was created in the pre-internet era when information was much less fungible.
The problem with former President Donald Trump’s response to FBI inquiries of the Mar-a-Lago documents, as with his responses to so much scrutiny of him, is that his overwrought, accusatory declarations make them appear more sensitive than most of them probably are.
Far savvier is President Joe Biden’s apparent response of disclosure and cooperation to the more recent discovery of classified records at the Penn Biden Center in Washington and at his home in Delaware.
History suggests that the bulk of the restricted documents found in both presidents’ personal possession contain information already in the public domain – or information that should be in the public domain. Unfortunately, Americans likely won’t learn this key fact until it is much too late to matter.
James Rosen is a former Pentagon reporter for McClatchy who earlier covered the collapse of the Soviet Union as a Moscow correspondent. He received awards from the National Press Club, Military Reporters & Editors Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, which last year named him top opinion columnist.
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