The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yes, everyone has classified documents. The system is out of control.

A man walks past boxes being moved out of the White House on Jan. 14, 2021. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
5 min

An earlier version of this article misstated Daniel Patrick Moynihan's service on the Senate Intelligence Committee. It began in 1977. This article has been updated.

What should we think of the fact that Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and now Mike Pence have all turned out to have classified material sitting in their houses? Before I answer that question, let me tell you a few facts. One 2004 essay put the number of classified pages in existence at about 7.5 billion. In 2012, records were classified at a rate of 3 per second, making for an estimated 95 million classifications that year alone. Today, no one knows how frequently information is classified. And as of 2019, more than 4 million people were eligible to access classified information, about one-third for top secret records, the highest general designation.

The real scandal is that the U.S. government has a totally out-of-control system of secrets that represents a real danger to the quality of democratic government.

Let me acknowledge a political point. It is true that people glossed over these issues when Trump was found to be holding onto classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home, but have begun to discuss them now that President Biden also appears to be guilty of the same offense. Some of this double standard is political bias. But Trump’s behavior was also a major issue, particularly his refusal to turn over the documents and defiance of direct requests from the Justice Department. That is an important difference, though it doesn’t change the larger point. Given how crazy the classification system is, the wonder is that we don’t find more top secret documents littered throughout the houses of government officials.

In 1998, then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who served for years on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence beginning in 1977, wrote a book titled “Secrecy: The American Experience.” In it, he lamented the rise of the “culture of secrecy” within the U.S. government, which he believed was both bad for foreign policy and dangerous to democracy. On the first point, Moynihan argued that many of the government’s biggest mistakes were a result of its reluctance to share information and subject its analysis to outside criticism.

Follow Fareed Zakaria's opinionsFollow

Remember that the intelligence community was largely created to assess one question — the nature of the Soviet threat. It got this wrong. In the late 1950s, for example, it claimed that the Soviet Union was significantly ahead of the United States in missile technology and deployment, a very consequential but totally false assertion. More broadly, it got the state of the Soviet economy in the 1980s dead wrong, claiming it was sturdy when, in fact, it was collapsing. After the Cold War, in the late 1990s, the intelligence community’s central directive was to establish whether Saddam Hussein was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It got that wrong, as well.

Moynihan argued that secrecy had become a form of regulation and bureaucratic control. People in government viewed information as power, didn’t want to share it, and developed elaborate mechanisms to horde it. They covered up mistakes, embarrassments and illegal activities by classifying the problem away. Richard M. Nixon’s solicitor general wrote in 1989 about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, top secret documents about the Vietnam War released while the war was still being waged: “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat. … It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.”

Democratic governments demand transparency. Accountability and control are impossible when citizens know so little about what the government is doing — and when it has the power to block access to any of that information.

This problem has become much, much worse in the digital era. Timothy Naftali, a New York University scholar and former director of the Nixon Library, told me, “We now have a tsunami of classified documents — tens of thousands of emails, PowerPoints, all kinds of stuff — all stored somewhere in the cloud, but we still have a tiny staff of people at the National Archives for the declassification process.” He estimated that it could take five years for a request to declassify a single document to even make it to the agency that has to decide whether to do so. Another scholar, Matthew Connelly of Columbia University, points out that the U.S. government spends about $18 billion a year on classifying and protecting information and just $100 million on declassification.

Most presidents come to office promising to open up government secrets. Yet once they get into office, they prefer the cozy system that keeps their actions hidden from public scrutiny and assessment. What we have now is a vast military-intelligence secrecy complex that just keeps growing — a recipe for bad decision-making and unaccountable government.