“These are crazy times,” comedian Jimmy Fallon quipped last night. “Right now, Walgreens has deodorant behind a locked case, while classified documents are laying around like J. Crew catalogs all over the house.”
Indeed, the discovery of classified documents in the home of former Vice President Mike Pence, disclosed Tuesday, has launched countless jokes – and put a punctuation mark on the ongoing saga of such materials turning up in the private homes and offices of President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump. Both the president and former president are now under investigation by special counsels.
But the news about Mr. Pence – who served under Mr. Trump and stated in a November CNN interview that he “did not” take any classified documents from the White House – has made clear this is a more widespread problem. To many national security experts, it’s giving credence to the view that way too much information is marked “classified” and that the handling of such documents has long been fraught.
The Pence news “confirms what has become evident, which is that there’s a systemic problem here,” says Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program.
Part of the problem, she says, is that “when there’s any uncertainty, officials default to classifying.” And when so much information is marked classified, “you are bound to run into situations where officials are either cutting corners or just making mistakes.”
Matthew Connelly, a historian at Columbia University, describes the dilemma of over-classification by paraphrasing former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. “When everything is classified, nothing is classified,” says Professor Connelly, author of a forthcoming book, “The Declassification Engine.”
There’s even a term for classified documents leaving secure locations, accidentally or otherwise: “spillage.” Within the U.S. government, some 2,000 people are known as “original classifiers,” Ms. Goitein says – that is, allowed to determine what information should be classified. Then there are some 4 million government employees with security clearance, including more than 1 million with top-secret clearance.
In the vast majority of cases, such spillage is deemed inadvertent, and not prosecuted. In recent years, however, some high-profile officials have been prosecuted for mishandling classified information. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, received probation and a fine after pleading guilty. Former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger faced similar punishment for unauthorized removal of classified information from the National Archives.
The cases of Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden, and Mr. Pence all appear largely centered on how documents are handled in the final stretch of an administration – in Mr. Biden’s case, most of the documents came from his days as vice president under President Barack Obama. Presidential transitions entail a certain level of frenzy, as an outgoing administration seeks to pack as much official activity as possible into its final days in office, even as it prepares to move out of the White House complex.
In the Trump administration’s case, there seemed to be an extra level of chaos, given Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to concede defeat and the ensuing turmoil around the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.
Much remains to be learned about all three cases of misappropriated classified documents. In the case of Mr. Biden, the fact that classified materials from his days as a U.S. senator turned up in his Wilmington, Delaware, home – along with more documents from his tenure as vice president – adds a new dimension to his case. That disclosure came last weekend from Mr. Biden’s private lawyer, following a 13-hour FBI search last Friday of the Wilmington house. In total, six more documents were found.
All three men are eyeing the 2024 presidential race, adding a political aspect to the documents situation. Mr. Trump is already a declared candidate, Mr. Biden is expected to announce his reelection campaign after the State of the Union address on Feb. 7, and Mr. Pence has taken steps toward a possible run. At least one Republican member of Congress has suggested that Mr. Pence should have a special counsel assigned to his case, in the name of fairness.
The recent drip, drip of information over classified documents has led to widespread speculation about what might be laying around at the homes or offices of other past presidents. Representatives of former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama told CNN that classified records were handed over to the National Archives when they left office, and that the ex-presidents were not planning additional searches.
According to The Associated Press, former President Jimmy Carter once found classified documents at his home in Plains, Georgia, and returned them to the National Archives.
Professor Connelly, the historian, points to decadeslong, bipartisan efforts to improve the nation’s system of classification, seemingly to little avail.
In 1998, legislation spearheaded by liberal Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina resulted in the creation of an entity called the Public Interest Declassification Board.
“But if you haven’t heard of it, that’s your answer,” Professor Connelly says.
He points to a recent comment by Mark Bradley, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, who reported last July that his office had stopped trying to count annual production of government secrets: “We can no longer keep our heads above the tsunami.”
It’s a problem, Professor Connelly says, that is so acute, it supersedes partisanship. And with major figures from both parties in trouble over the handling of classified material – shining a spotlight on the issue – perhaps that will lead to a solution.
Political analysts note that there’s likely little Mr. Biden can do to reform the nation’s classification system while he’s under investigation, but looking down the road, some experts are hopeful.
Ms. Goitein of the Brennan Center proposes “tightening the substantive criteria for classifying documents in the first instance.” And she suggests that advances in machine learning be used to help limit what’s classified. That is, use computers to recognize phrases and patterns of words that lead to classification.
The addition of Mr. Pence into the discussion could also help build momentum toward solutions, she says.
“It’s no longer a Trump versus Biden narrative,” Ms. Goitein says. ”I think that distracted from some of the systemic issues we need to be looking at.”
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