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We don’t yet know what classified documents and information former President Donald Trump took with him to Mar-a-Lago.
But all of this talk about the secrets the government keeps from its citizens gets to a gripe of mine as a journalist: The US government often misapplies classification as a way to hide embarrassing rather than sensitive things.
Laws are in place to prevent cover-ups, but shining light on the government is an essential part of accountability.
To learn more about legitimate secrets versus overclassified cover-ups, I talked to Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. It was founded in 1985 by journalists and historians who wanted to create a nongovernmental archive of Freedom of Information Act releases. It also sues the government to try to save and preserve government records.
Our phone conversation, edited for length and flow, is below:
WHAT MATTERS: Given your mission and what you folks do really well – which is to get information from the government and make it public – I would assume that you think the government classifies too much information. Is that right?
BLANTON: The government itself admits vast overclassification. I think Donald Rumsfeld, when he was secretary of defense, had a deputy testifying before Congress who was asked that question directly, and she said, well, probably 50%.
(Note: I found a transcript of this hearing from 2004. The deputy was Carol Haave, and she said 50/50, but argued the overclassification is to err on the side of caution. A more recent example is that the sitting director of national intelligence has said overclassification is a national security issue.)
BLANTON: Our best guess would be closer to 70 to 80% overclassified, meaning most of what the government classifies could be released in pretty short order.
Most of what the government classifies is about “government embarrassment of one kind or another.” And that’s a direct quote from the solicitor general of the United States who prosecuted The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case and in 1989 wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying: I was wrong, nothing in there really damaged national security. It was about government embarrassment. That was the core motive.
Now, there are exceptions: how to design a binary chemical warhead or a deliverable tactical nuclear bomb or the identity of a source in a foreign country who’d be shot if their identity was known. Those are real secrets.
I’m not a fan of the (Julian) Assange and WikiLeaks approach that says they have the power to throw everything up on the wall. I think there are real secrets.
It’s just the constant struggle is to push against the bureaucratic imperatives that cause “secure-a-crats” to cover their rears for the most part with classified documents, but ensuring that the real secrets that will get people killed get really protected.
WHAT MATTERS: Tell me a little bit about how long it takes to get government information declassified.
BLANTON: Totally depends on whose interests are served.
For example, when President Trump had a highly classified telephone call with the president of Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky, and it became a huge issue in Mr. Trump’s impeachment inquiry by Congress. The White House was able to declassify those secret documents really quickly, really within a couple of months of the actual conversation. (Read it here.)
And that speaks to the reality that a lot of what the government holds as secret could actually be released much sooner.
More typical would be documents like the CIA family jewels, the compilation of all the ways the parts of the CIA had violated various laws. That took almost 30 years to get declassified, even though it was the subject of congressional hearings in the 1970s. And reporters like Sy Hersh had written and published parts of it.
WHAT MATTERS: How do you deal with that?
BLANTON: We have just been told by the George W. Bush Presidential Library this year that there’s a 12-year backlog of declassification review, and this was a request I made for a single meeting that President George W. Bush had with outside experts on (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.
We were curious. What was he told? What did he think? What were his talking points? So we asked for just the records of that one meeting. They said it’ll be 12 years before we even get to review it.
It’s a sad state of affairs, and Covid only made it worse by adding a good two more years of delay into the process.
So on the one hand, Freedom of Information requests can, in principle, open a document that is as recent as yesterday. In reality, it usually takes some years if you’re talking about national security information, and that’s why we, the National Security Archive, really exists – to pursue that over the years.
WHAT MATTERS: Is that the meeting where former President Bush looked into Putin’s eye and said he saw his soul?
BLANTON: It was the prep meeting for President Bush’s first meeting with Putin, and so the folks at the White House brought in some outside experts like the great British historian Timothy Garton Ash and the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber and had them sit down with George Bush.
It was going to be his first trip to Europe as president, his first meeting with Putin. And so they had a briefing session, kind of a training session, a little class for the President to prep him. And it was only after that, that President Bush looked at “the Putin soul.”
WHAT MATTERS: That is particularly interesting given how the Biden administration has declassified information about Russia and Ukraine in real time, in an unprecedented way.
BLANTON: That’s right, and that’s a great point. Because I think the Biden administration – especially the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, who has a ton of authority over this kind of sensitive real-time intelligence – made a high-level decision that they had to get ahead of the curve, both telling Putin, “we know what you’re up to, we know your plans to invade and we know it’s not going to work out for you.” And to also warn the allies, try to build support among the allies and try to warn the Ukrainians.
It’s a fascinating set of choices and it goes to this larger point that a lot of what the United States collects in classified systems could in fact come out in summarized forms or stripped of the original source information to come out in close to real time.
WHAT MATTERS: When you talk to senators on the Intelligence Committee, or other people who see a lot of classified information, they will say that often it’s the same kind of thing that you would read in The New York Times or on CNN.com. What are some of the things that you’ve seen that kind of shocked you after decades of uncovering formerly classified information?
BLANTON: Well, I would just go to your first point about senators being underwhelmed by a lot of classification and just remind us all – while we’re all worried about classified documents being found down at Mar-a-Lago – is to remember the 22 supposedly Top Secret emails on Hillary Clinton’s server. They all turned out to be New York Times stories that have been forwarded to her by her staff that were about drone strikes in places like Pakistan, and the controversies around them.
(NOTE: Clinton told NPR in 2016 that the emails in question included information from a New York Times story. Click here to see former CIA lawyer Brian Greer, who saw contents of the emails, talk about them on CNN this week.)
The State Department considered those unclassified because they were published in the New York Times. When the CIA got around to reviewing them, the CIA said no, no, no, those are Top Secret, our drone program was highly classified, that is a real violation.
So you had this dispute between State and CIA, which is really typical in the classified realm, where one agency considers it declassified, or unclassified, and the other agency says, no, no, that’s really secret. We even have published examples on our website where the very same reviewer, just 10 days apart, looked at the same secret document and deleted completely different portions of it.
So that’s a core problem with the classification system, that so much of it is subjective.
Not all of it. A lot of it is like what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: He knows that when he sees it. You see a diagram of a nuclear weapons system or anonymous sources talking to your embassy in Pakistan who might get shot. Yeah, that’s a real secret.
WHAT MATTERS: Do you think it’s possible or plausible that the classified information that former President Trump had was just a bunch of New York Times stories?
BLANTON: I doubt it. And here’s why: those cover pages in garish yellow and red that are in that photograph, the Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information.
This cover sheet is for information going up to the level of HCS, human intelligence, human sources, or SI, which is communications intercepts, or TK, which are overhead imagery.
That is a screaming signal that this is really sensitive, and it looks almost as if then-President Trump just carried these things up to the White House residence almost as souvenirs and then hauled them down to Mar-a-Lago, and have some sense that, hey, they’re my property.
Well, they’re not. They’re the US government’s property, the American people’s property. You didn’t have a right to them.
It’s interesting that the prosecutors are not citing classified information as part of their basis for their search warrant or their criminal investigation. The laws they’re citing are about unlawful retention of national defense information, unlawful retention of government records and obstructing investigation, so it won’t hinge on whether these documents are properly classified.
WHAT MATTERS: What do you make of Trump’s argument that he could simply declassify things as president?
BLANTON: There are laws that hold him back from releasing information like nuclear weapons designs or prevent him from releasing, say, the name of a human source. There are laws that govern that kind of information. So the authority of the president is not absolute at all.
But the authority of an ex-president is zero. He doesn’t have the power to declassify and by taking those records from the White House, he’s stealing them.
Just those cover sheets alone should have warned everybody involved – Trump’s lawyers, his staff and the former President himself – you better give these back. They don’t belong to you.
WHAT MATTERS: What’s one example of extreme overclassification that never needed to happen, which your organization has uncovered?
BLANTON: Go to our website, nsarchive.org, and just do a search using the term “dubious secrets.”
We’ve published hundreds of these examples where you can look at a document side-by-side and see what one time was blacked out and another time was released in full. One time, top and bottom blacked out, and another time the middle blacked out.
So you see how absurd it is. Secrecy that proves the point that this is about embarrassment, not doing real damage to national security – I would say the No. 1 example would be the Senate torture report. It’s still under wraps. The only thing that’s been released is this 500-page executive summary. But the main report is still classified, I think largely because it would completely embarrass the CIA.
WHAT MATTERS: I’m glad you mentioned that because it brings up an example of CIA officials destroying government property when they destroyed the tapes of torture, but there was never a criminal prosecution regarding that.
BLANTON: And maybe that’s part of what former President Trump was relying on. The people who destroyed those records actually were rewarded for their cover-up.
One key player, Gina Haspel, Trump actually appointed as head of the CIA. So under Trump rules, if you destroy government records that are of interest to investigations and accountability, that’s a great thing and you get promoted and maybe that’s what he’s thinking when he tears up those records or flushes them in the toilet or takes Top Secret stuff down to his personal office at Mar-a-Lago, which is a club that is accessible by membership, you can pay $200,000 for annual membership and walk around wherever you want in there.
So it’s an it’s an amazing commentary on the on Trump rules. And the chaos that governed the White House.
WHAT MATTERS: At the same time, I don’t think anybody has said he’s trying to cover anything up by taking documents to Mar-a-Lago. I’m assuming they would have had other copies of all of this information floating around the government.
BLANTON: That’s possible, although the copies that, for example, former President Trump wrote on would be originals and unique. The first copy of the daily intelligence brief would be a pretty unique item.
The photograph of all those classified cover sheets and documents doesn’t suggest a cover up per se, but more as if former President Trump was treating the White House as his personal property, as just another casino that he had acquired one way or another, and so he could take any of the chips out and they were classified Top Secret.
WHAT MATTERS: You mentioned the President’s daily intelligence brief. I just want to clarify that it’s been CNN’s reporting that he didn’t read the daily intelligence briefing as president.
BLANTON: The intelligence community tried to give him his daily brief electronically. Gave it to him like they had with (former President Barack) Obama on iPads. The intelligence folks, it’s been reported, had to dumb down the presentation to just bullet points, not the long prose memos they used to give to Obama or to other presidents.
And then after a certain point, after Trump tweeted out one of the Top Secret satellite photos he had gotten in his daily briefing over the objections of most intelligence folks, it seems as though the CIA and others stopped giving him that kind of thing that he could effectively run off with. But it looks like he managed to get away with a few.
WHAT MATTERS: You mentioned the iPad. How is the move toward digital documents affecting your work?
BLANTON: The move to digital is probably the biggest transformation in government records, and the issue is one of volume.
For historians, and researchers and journalists like us, I think the future is going to be one of having to use search algorithms rather than going page by page to find the piece of gold among the piles of coal.
I wrote a book called, “White House E-mail.” That was in 1995. We had won a lawsuit to save the Reagan White House email. There were only a couple hundred thousand messages left from (Ronald) Reagan’s eight years in office.
But by the time I got to (Bill) Clinton, there were 32 million individual email messages. By Obama they were doing 100 million a year of electronic records being created.
So the good news is it’s easy to save all that stuff. Thumb drives are cheap. You could save it now and sort it out later. That’s my theory because you can use algorithms and software programming to pull out the personal, private stuff, to pull out the real secrets and then declassify everything else.
The challenge I think is in a digital world for the poor National Archives, which is kind of an orphaned agency. I think the annual budget of the National Archives is about the same as what a Marine One helicopter costs to buy to ferry the president around. (The National Archives plans to spend $541 million in fiscal year 2022, which is a bit more than the cost of two of the $217 million helicopters the Marines use.)
WHAT MATTERS: If there’s one thing that you wanted everyone in the country to know about what our government keeps secret, what would it be?
BLANTON: I would quote Ronald Reagan about the Soviet Union: Trust but verify.
In other words, if the government says it’s secret, yeah, most of the time, there’s some reasonable reason. But show us what was the real damage.
Right now with the Mar-a-Lago documents, the intelligence community is doing a damage assessment. Did it really damage our national security that he hauled off these souvenirs to his private club in Florida? Were they accessible by any hostile intelligence services? Did anybody else know they were there? That’s really still unclear.
What is clear is that former President Trump stole the documents and that people around him, including his lawyer, lied to the government about what was there and what they had.