A brief history of misplaced classified documents

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A brief history of misplaced classified documents

NPRs Ayesha Rascoe speaks with Columbia University history professor Matthew Connelly about the history of misplaced classified documents.

A brief history of misplaced classified documents

A brief history of misplaced classified documents

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NPRs Ayesha Rascoe speaks with Columbia University history professor Matthew Connelly about the history of misplaced classified documents.

OK, there are a lot of classified documents showing up where they should not. First with former President Trump, and now with President Biden, which made us wonder why. Matthew Connelly has puzzled over that question a lot. Hes a professor of history at Columbia University and has just written an op-ed about this for The New York Times. Good morning.

MATTHEW CONNELLY: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So stepping back, how common is it for documents to be labeled classified or secret, and who gets to decide?

CONNELLY: Well, the last time the government reported out this kind of data, they told us that government officials were classifying information tens of millions of times every year. At one point in 2012, this was over 90 million times a year. So thats three times every second.

RASCOE: And so who is deciding that, just members of the government?

CONNELLY: Well, yeah, theres over a million people - 1.3 million people - that have a top-secret security clearance, and there are millions more people who have lower levels of security clearances. And every single one of them, if theyre dealing with some program or some capability thats considered secret or top-secret, theyre supposed to classify that, you know, whether its an email or a PowerPoint or what have you.

RASCOE: So is this happening more now than in the past?

CONNELLY: Well, the short answer is no one knows because, you know, even the government watchdog over the security classification system, he said that we can no longer keep our heads above the tsunami. They cant even count how many times theyre creating new secrets every year.

RASCOE: So, I mean, youve called this the national secrecy complex. Like, what are the dangers of labeling so many things as classified?

CONNELLY: Well, the real problem is that the American people cant hold their government to account because even though there are millions and millions of new secrets being created every year, there are only a couple thousand people - 2,000 in the U.S. government - whose full-time job it is to review records and decide what can be released. So ultimately, Im more worried about, you know, how it is were going to keep our leaders accountable.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, I guess one of the issues might be that with so much stuff being classified, that its hard to say, when you say someones caught with classified documents, the level of importance and significance of that. Thats what I would imagine.

CONNELLY: Absolutely right, Ayesha. And, you know, as an historian, Ive looked at thousands of documents that are classified top-secret, and I can tell you not all of them are super interesting. Theres an old joke about how a lot of secret intelligence is not actually secret, and what is secret is not always very intelligent.

RASCOE: OK. Well, I mean, what about the president? What is the president doing with all this classification stuff? Is he rubber-stamping it? Is he putting a rubber stamp on everything? Classified.

CONNELLY: Well, presidents like secrets because its the only - virtually the only form of presidential power thats fully sovereign. Theyre basically accountable to no one. And so, yes, presidents hang on to these secrets, and theyre very reluctant even to let other people classify information. But, you know, once they create those secrecy systems, that secrecy has a power all its own. And these millions of other people can create secrets for their own reasons.

RASCOE: And so as a historian, not a politician, what strikes you when you analyze the cases of President Biden and former President Trump?

CONNELLY: Yeah, so a lot of the coverage has been about, you know, whether they put our national security at risk. And the short answer is going to be we dont know, right? But to me, the real scandal here - and this goes back decades. This isnt about any particular administration. Its the fact that public officials are basically stealing our property. When they refuse or fail to return records to the National Archives, theyre taking our history, right? And so in this particular case, its a little bit like, you know, if somebody moved out and they ended up taking some of your papers with them. And some of those papers could be really important.

In the case of President Trump, he claimed that they were his property, and we had no right to them. And hes been fighting ever since, refusing to give it back, right? In the case of Biden, hes telling us it was a mistake. Now, that said, Im a little troubled that one of the folders where they found these documents apparently was marked personal. Its far from personal. Its actually public property. Its your and my property.

RASCOE: So what can be done and how realistic are possible reforms in the about 30 seconds we have left?

CONNELLY: All the talk is about how we need new and better rules. What we really need is for Congress and the courts to step up and do their jobs. Theyre the only ones who can actually bring this system under control.

RASCOE: And what type of things could they do? Like, what type of laws?

CONNELLY: They need the power of appropriations. Only 1% as much money is spent on releasing information to the public as they spend on keeping secrets, and the courts could finally overturn the precedent that prevents judges from even looking at classified information when citizens try to get it released from the public.

RASCOE: Thats Matthew Connelly, professor of history at Columbia University. His book The Declassification Engine is out next month. Thank you for being with us.

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