The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mishandled classified materials have caused an uproar. Here’s why.

Americans have always been skeptical of government secrets — it’s in our national DNA.

A page from an FBI property list of items seized from former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. (Jon Elswick/AP)
6 min

President Biden finds himself in hot water after a number of classified documents surfaced first at the Penn Biden Center and then at his home in Wilmington. These revelations complicate the narrative surrounding a mass of classified files recovered by federal agents from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence last year after he refused repeated requests and a subpoena to return them.

After records were also found at former vice president Mike Pence’s Indiana home, the National Archives asked former officials to ensure that they hadn’t “inadvertently” packed away presidential papers, confidential or otherwise.

Despite their very meaningful differences, these cases of mishandled classified material have ignited a political firestorm. Why do we care so much where these secrets ended up?

For one, these incidents remind us that the government keeps a lot of secrets — something Americans have been uneasy with dating to the founding. This suspicion of secrecy is why the way in which we handle classified material matters — especially if American leaders want to maintain trust in our democracy.

As modern republics were born in the late 18th century, secrecy was widely discredited as a vestige of monarchy and tool of tyranny — a way to subvert the will of the people, skirt accountability and advance the personal prerogatives of monarchs over the interests of nations.

In this climate, Thomas Jefferson lamented the fact that the Constitutional Convention had held its meetings behind closed doors in 1787. Writing to John Adams shortly before the convention disbanded, Jefferson declared that he was “sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members.” Nothing, he went on, could justify the framers’ decision to meet in secret, “but the innocence of their intentions, and ignorance of the value of public discussions.” As the ratification debates got underway, many pointed to the secrecy surrounding the convention’s proceedings as cause for concern.

The official records of this momentous closed-door meeting, it should be noted, were packed up and sent home with George Washington. The country’s first president spent his ensuing term in office studiously safeguarding the executive’s prerogative to use secrecy while trying to tamp down accusations that he was deploying it to subvert the will of the people.

The suspicion of secrecy ran deep; some went so far as to suggest it was incompatible with republican government. As the House of Representatives weighed closing its doors to consider a presidential communication in 1793 about a treaty negotiation — the type of instance that often prompted confidentiality — some members echoed this prominent skepticism: “It was said, that secrecy in a Republican Government wounds the majesty of the sovereign people,” the record recounts. Proponents of open doors maintained that “this Government is in the hands of the people; and that they have a right to know all the transactions relative to their own affairs.”

While many early Americans suspected state secrecy writ large, there was a gradual — if grudging, on the part of some — acceptance that it was necessary to run a country. As the United States charted a diplomatic course through the Age of Revolutions, even skeptics generally came to the conclusion that to engage in foreign relations in particular required some degree of confidentiality. But this acceptance was, and is, based at least in part on a crucial separation between the government as an institution and the individuals serving in it.

A strong undercurrent of suspicion about secrecy remains, especially when it comes to politicians who keep secrets — and especially when those secrets officially belong to the state. After all, if the government is by and for the people, and if that government has to keep secrets, shouldn’t they belong to the people and not to any one person?

As he prepared to leave office in 1796, Washington turned over the records of the Constitutional Convention that had been entrusted to him to the State Department. While they remained under wraps there for years to come, the first president made the crucial move of depositing them with an institution rather than keeping them for himself. It was a distinction of enduring significance.

As the amount of classified material the government generates has increased over time, a bureaucratic apparatus for dealing with it has emerged, designed in part to maintain this distinction.

Not just anyone can keep anything — and while presidents can declassify documents, there’s a formal protocol for doing so. And it’s not just by thinking about it, as Trump claimed.

When presidents leave office, White House files — classified or not — are to be turned over to the National Archives, per the Presidential Records Act (1978). When a past president — or vice president — takes classified material with them on their way out, storing it in their basements or garages, it just doesn’t sit right.

In the cases of both Trump and Biden, speculation abounds as to what the recovered files contain and what the former and current president did — or planned to do — with the material. Even the appearance of improper handling of the documents erodes trust, a valuable commodity at the core of our democracy.

Despite Biden’s volunteering of the records and his cooperation (in marked contrast to Trump), the president’s handling of the documents is now the subject of a special counsel investigation through the Justice Department and a probe by the House Oversight Committee.

In Trump’s case, also under investigation by a special counsel at the Justice Department, his willful hoarding of records and repeated refusal to return them is yet another in a string of norms violations and corrupt conduct that marked his tenure in office. His insistence that at least some of the recovered records were personal ones, suggests his confusion about a central principle of democracy: that elected officials are there to serve the people and not themselves.

Secrets are powerful in politics. From the beginning, modern democracies have been based on their disavowal; transparency has long been meant to foster trust in government. While today, we largely accept that secrets have a place in the state, the state remains the operative term. To be legitimate, secrets in a democracy must be kept by the people and not by any one person.