A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter.To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
This is getting ridiculous.
Since 2016, Americans have had the chance to choose their president from among three people, all of whom have been found to have classified documents they should not have.
Apparently, there’s a bigger problem.
We, the public, have no idea what files President Joe Biden has locked away in his garage or in the Manila folders in the Biden Center office in Pennsylvania.
We don’t know the details of what documents the FBI captured on the floor of former President Donald Trump’s Mar a Lago resort.
We’re not even sure what documents were on Hillary Clinton’s email server, though we do know that dozens of them were retroactively classified years after the incident, long after her private email server became a political liability.
The classified documents and their presence in emails, offices, storage rooms and garages have created political headaches for successive presidential candidates of both parties.
The classification system used by the U.S. government is siled among different organizations, cannot be followed, and is not applied uniformly.
On Sunday, I tried unsuccessfully to find a written estimate of how much classified information the government produces each year.
The former’s fascinating twitter thread cia attorney brian grier Explains that most information classified by the government is classified by default as a “derived classification decision”.
He cited a 2016 estimate from the National Archives’ Office of Information Security Oversight, estimating that in that year alone, more than 102 million pages of U.S. government documents were reviewed and about 44 million pages declassified.
That means most of what the government could declassify that year is not there.
A recent report by the agency outlined 2,116 different “security classification guidelines” according to which different government agencies classify documents. The Archives argues that these should be assessed and simplified in a holistic manner, while acknowledging the differing needs of the 18 different US intelligence agencies.
As I wrote in August, it’s actually a very large world of people with access to top-secret data. The Director of National Intelligence publishes a so-called annual report, “Security Review Decisions,” although the most recent report I could find was from 2017. Of these, more than 2.8 million were described as having security clearances as of October 2017 – more than 1.6 million had access to classified or secret information, and nearly 1.2 million were described as having access to top secret information.
Others have security clearances but cannot currently access information. This includes civilian employees, contractors and military personnel.
There are examples of too much information that governments keep secret long after it is necessary. Take, for example, the documents the CIA released just last month related to the JFK assassination 60 years ago. Or, as The Washington Post pointed out in an editorial, the idiotic fact that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were interviewed by the 9/11 Commission was kept secret for 18 years. The Post’s editorial board has outlined a number of proposals, including the possible removal of the lowest level of classification, “confidential.”
Biden’s White House launched a systematic review of classified systems back in June, before revelations that he or Trump improperly or accidentally kept classified documents.
The request came after senators complained that the classification system costs taxpayers $18.5 billion a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal also reported a letter from Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, to senators in which she said overclassification was a threat to national security.
“I believe that the shortcomings of the current classified system compromise our national security as well as critical democratic goals by hindering our ability to share information in a timely manner,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, the Biden administration began declassifying information to let the world know that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine, proving the benefits of sharing information.
The identity and method of obtaining intelligence personnel shall be kept confidential. Details of nuclear capabilities and other similarly sensitive material should be kept secret.
But it’s also important to recognize that both the government and the intelligence community’s top brass believe the government keeps too many secrets.