Who doesn’t have a stash of classified documents in their home or offsite office?
It might be THE question in Washington these days in light of the mishandling of secret papers by President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and ex-Vice President Mike Pence.
One shocking discovery after the other. What does it mean?
The answer is that no one knows anything at this point, including the subject of the documents, who had access, why they were so casually mishandled, what, if any, harm was done, how investigators are handling the probe, and what, if any, punishment is forthcoming.
It has ignited a political firestorm and raised questions about the FBI. Is each offender being treated the same? That’s a sore spot that goes back to Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email server when she was Secretary of State.
FBI Director James Comey said there was no intent by Clinton or her colleagues to mishandle data, “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
He went on to say, “Our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
In other words, “nothing to see here,” as they say in the movies. So, is the standard intent? That’s hard to prove, and no doubt not the law, or the intent of the law
The damage is not always obvious.
The purpose of classifying documents is to prevent our enemies from knowing our methods, technology, and our assets. Public disclosure can mean death to our agents, uproot peace negotiations, and cut ties to allies.
Full disclosure: I had a secret security clearance in the Air Force and I never brought any documents home.
As a journalist, I see a different side. Sources leak information to reporters like a diaper on a 500-pound man. Motives range from political hardball to whistleblowers with legitimate concerns.
Sometimes it’s hard to take the issue seriously. Washington has historically overused its rubber “Secret” stamp.
There is a thing called the First Amendment right to a free press and the critical need for transparency in a democracy.
Take the Pentagon Papers, for example.
A study ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had second thoughts about the Vietnam War, was leaked to the New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971.
The Nixon Administration sought an injunction.
“For the first time in the history of the American public, newspapers had been restrained by the government from publishing a story – a black mark in the history of democracy,” Post Editor Ben Bradlee wrote in his autobiography, A Good Life.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the government.
The study should not have been classified in the first place. The material was already out, in other publications, speeches, unclassified briefings and in other outlets.
The public deserved to know why so much blood—58,000 U.S. dead alone–and treasure was spent in such a disastrous war.
Now, there is a new case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, charged with publishing classified documents on the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will a public spotlight harm national security or make policy-makers accountable?
Hiding embarrassing blunders is one reason some documents are buried in locked vaults marked “classified.” Let the light shine on those, but at the very least stop people from breaking the law by spreading reams of secret papers around like confetti.