Here’s today’s question: Could it harm national security for a high-ranking government official to cart around top-secret documents for a few years, stuff those documents into a cardboard box, and then pack that box in his garage or in a storage room in his country club?
I guess I have a follow-up question: If that could hurt national security, then shouldn’t the CIA (or the Department of Defense, or whoever) know that the top-secret documents are missing?
If misuse of highly classified documents could harm national security, then we should be outraged: We should promptly investigate (1) why high-ranking officials are able to walk off with classified documents in the first place and (2) why the relevant agency, presumably keeping close tabs on its classified information, had no clue that the documents were missing for years.
This strikes me as a Code 3 situation: Sirens should be sounding and lights flashing! The list with the names of all of our spies in Iran has been missing for several years! Anyone care to look around for it?
Doesn’t this wreak of a systemic failure in both the White House and a government agency? Shouldn’t a responsible person investigate? Why is no one demanding an investigation — of both the White House and the agencies — and why is everyone simply blaming the political party they don’t like?
This seems wrong.
Say, I have an idea!
Back in fourth grade, our librarian — I think it was Miss Fitzgerald — was pretty good at tracking overdue books. She’d charge you a nickel a day for any book kept out past its due date.
Let’s drag Miss Fitzgerald out of retirement and ask her to keep track of classified government documents. It’s a nickel a day for every day that the documents are past due.
My proposal has two benefits: First, Miss Fitzgerald would plainly do a better job than the CIA at tracking overdue documents. Miss Fitzgerald knew almost all the time when a book was past due, and she’d come after you pretty hard. (And this was in the days before computers. Just think what she could do today!) Second, my proposal would go a fair way toward solving the current problem with the debt limit. At a nickel a day, those overdue charges rack up: It’s something like $18 per year! Trump has lots of documents, and Biden has held his documents for more than six years now. And we know that lots of people besides the president walk away with classified documents. CIA Director David Petraeus and national security aide Sandy Berger both pleaded guilty to taking classified documents.
Nobody really seems to care about the substance of these documents; we’d have been better off with a nickel a day.
Not only that: If Trump, and Biden, and Petraeus, and Berger are walking around with classified documents, think how many other people must have boxes filled with these documents lying around in their basements. We could pay some teenager minimum wage to root around through the basements of people with security clearance and net a fortune on the investment!
I suspect I know why nobody really cares about the substance of these documents: The government surely stamps virtually every document as “super secret; eyes only,” because that’s the natural thing to do. In government-speak, that’s the “overclassification” of documents. But you and I have seen the process in action when low-level lawyers are tasked with marking corporate documents produced in litigation as “confidential” and thus “for use only in litigation.”
The young associate sees some document. It’s the take-out menu for Woolfie’s Delicatessen. There are a couple of handwritten words scribbled near the bottom of the menu. The associate can’t quite make out the words. “The words might be important, and I’ll get killed if some important document is made public. I guess I’ll stamp the menu ‘confidential’; we’ll withdraw the designation if the other side challenges it and somebody can read the writing.”
So, too, I assume, in the government. The take-out menu for Woolfie’s is lying around somewhere in the CIA. It has a few words scribbled at the bottom. They appear to say, “2 roast beef with mustard,” but you can’t be absolutely sure. The document gets stamped “top secret.”
The document might contain information important to national security. If it does, there’d be hell to pay if it wasn’t marked “top secret.” And there’s basically no punishment for improperly classifying a document. In all likelihood, no one will ever notice the error. If they do, they’ll tell you that the document shouldn’t be deemed classified, and it’ll get changed. No harm; no foul.
One way to resolve the issues with Biden and Trump would simply be to declassify every document in dispute. After all, the documents have been lying around for years, and no one cared about the documents or missed them. So declassify ’em. After all this time, let’s see what a tuna on whole wheat (with tomatoes) cost at that deli on 17th Street back in 2015.
What if I’ve inadvertently disclosed the nuclear codes? Biden didn’t care; Trump didn’t care; why should I care any more than our presidents do?
Besides, disclosure would go a long way toward solving the question of who, if anyone, should be prosecuted for the improper handling of classified material. I, at least, wouldn’t send Trump to jail for having the Woolfie’s menu at Mar-a-Lago; maybe Woolfie’s has a branch in Palm Beach.
But more than anything else, we should do this: A nickel a day for each day the documents are overdue.