The discovery of Obama-era classified papers in multiple locations former Vice President Joe Biden used is the White House’s latest fiasco. “How could that possibly happen? How could anyone be that irresponsible?” Biden declared. Except that was him bemoaning to “60 Minutes” after the FBI found classified documents in its raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume both Biden and Trump are guilty as hell of mishandling classified documents. (Throw in Hillary Clinton for a trifecta.) The current and former president deserve the full penalty of law that they approved for other violators (some of whom have recently been sent to federal prison for mishandling documents).
But the latest scandal shows the need to puncture the iron curtain that both Republicans and Democrats dropped over the federal government.
Since the 1990s, the number of documents federal agencies classify annually has increased 15-fold and now exceeds a trillion pages a year. In 2004, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) derided the federal classification system as “incomprehensibly complex” and “so bloated it often does not distinguish between the critically important and the comically irrelevant.” The New York Times reported in 2005 that federal agencies were “classifying documents at the rate of 125 a minute as they create new categories of semi-secrets bearing vague labels like ‘sensitive security information.’” It’s gotten worse since then.
Politicians are far more prone to condemn whistleblowers than to oppose secrecy-shrouding federal abuses. Consider the reaction in 2013 after Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s surveillance crime spree, which included targeting Americans “searching the web for suspicious stuff.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) responded, “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated.” In the same way, congressmen presume that secrecy does no harm as long as federal dirt never leaks out.
Except when politicians or other officials profit from shoveling dirt. The combination of pervasive secrecy and selective disclosure empowers Washington insiders to spur one media stampede after another.
Trump’s presidency was crippled by leaks of classified, often false or misleading, material on RussiaGate. After a two-year investigation (and more leaks), special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence to prosecute Trump or his campaign officials for colluding with Russia in the 2016 campaign. But the RussiaGate controversy helped the Democrats capture control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 election.
In 2019, a leak of the transcript of a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky led to Trump’s first impeachment. In 2020, Biden won the presidency in part because federal agencies suppressed troves of potentially damning documents on his or his son’s dealings in Ukraine and other foreign nations. The FBI confirmed that Hunter Biden’s laptop was bona fide but aided other federal agencies and officials who discredited its revelations of Biden family corruption just before Election Day.
Even some Biden appointees claim to recognize the perils of the classification system. According to Politico, the Biden White House is launching a “new war on secrecy” and is especially concerned about “potentially illegal [government] activities that have been shielded from the public for decades.” (Be still my beating heart.)
A Biden administration official, speaking anonymously, declared it is in the “nation’s best interest to be as transparent as possible with the American public.” (Explicitly attaching one’s name to that seditious notion could ruin one’s DC career.)
Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, told Congress last year that “deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security . . . by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner” among government policymakers.
“We spend $18 billion protecting the classification system and only about $102 million . . . on declassification efforts,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) groused last year. “That ratio feels off in a democracy.” But inside the Beltway, rigging the game 176 to 1 is “close enough for government work” for transparency.
Washington’s prevailing political culture remains hell-bent against candor. Republicans in the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to create the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government to expose, among other things, government crimes that have been kept secret. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), the top House Democrat, denounced the effort Wednesday as a “Select Committee on Insurrection Protection” and promised to “fight it tooth and nail.”
Will Democrats stretch their ever-growing definition of treason to include “disclosing derelictions and debacles conniving bureaucrats prefer to hide”? Perhaps Biden’s congressional allies recognize that perpetuating coverups is the only way Biden will get re-elected.
Pervasive secrecy defines down democracy: People merely select their Supreme Deceivers. The legal fate of Biden and Trump is less important than whether Americans will finally learn how the feds are abusing their power. But it remains to be seen if the odds that “truth will out” are better than 176 to 1.
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.