The criminal culpability of Donald Trump and the sloppiness of the staffs of both Joe Biden and Mike Pence have combined to create a crisis over the handling of classified materials. The former involved Trump’s intentionally keeping large amounts of classified material at Mar-a-Lago; the latter led to small amounts of intelligence at Biden’s former office and his home, as well as in Pence’s home. Since I held high-level security clearances for more than four decades while in the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State and the Department of Defense, I have something to offer on the issue of secrets and secrecy.
First, there is a simple fix to the problem of presidents and vice presidents being responsible for the closing of their White House offices and the boxing of sensitive materials. This work is done at the final stages of a presidential term by staff members, some of whom probably even lack the clearances to handle sensitive materials. The closing down of these offices and the sorting of materials should be done by qualified members of the General Services Administration or, better yet, the National Archives and Records Administration, which can catalog sensitive materials as well as package them. In the case of Trump’s perfidy, the National Archives knew it was missing certain documents but had no idea about the rest of the items Trump was concealing.
Second, the government’s classification system terms items marked “confidential” as liable to cause “damage to the national security”; “secret” as running the risk of “serious damage”; and “top secret” causing “exceptionally grave damage” to national security. I never read a “confidential” or “secret” document that could cause serious damage to national security, and even in the case of “top secret” the notion of “exceptionally grave damage” is hyped to the point of uselessness. In the case of the documents found in Biden’s former office, these probably date from his term as vice president, and their shelf life from seven to 15 years ago probably renders them limited in value. The documents in Pence’s possession, also likely from his time as VP, are newer, but still at least two years old.
An easy solution would be to drop the terms “confidential” and “secret” or at least automatically declassify these items after five years. This would not harm the national security of the United States. The government and the intelligence community must protect the sources and methods in the collection of intelligence, but it is extremely rare for intelligence marked confidential or secret to be based on sensitive sources and methods. There are more sensitive materials in the media on a daily basis then there are in so-called confidential and secret pieces of intelligence.
Third, there is a serious amount of classified material that conveys false and even politicized intelligence. For example, the Reagan administration conducted the largest peacetime weapons spending spree in the 1980s, which transformed the United States from a creditor nation to a debtor nation. This defense spending was based on politicized intelligence from CIA director William Casey and the deputy director for intelligence Robert Gates throughout the 1980s. In actual fact, the Soviet Union was in decline, and its economy was a sorry state that Casey and Gates concealed from the White House and the Congress. The military buildup in the 1980s was costly and unneeded.
The so-called domino theory to justify the Vietnam War in the 1960s was a fraudulent concept within the intelligence community at every level. The domino theory was used to sell the war to the American public, which eventually questioned the war. I joined the CIA in 1966 and was not aware of any leading policymaker who believed in the idea of a domino theory.
Fourth, the Pentagon and the CIA use the veil of secrecy to keep information out of the public arena, thus foreclosing the possibility of public debate. Both institutions use a review process to make sure that their employees are unable to publish materials that are falsely labeled as classified. In one of my manuscripts, for example, the CIA took out every reference to the use of drones in Afghanistan, which it considered classified although it had been fully documented in the mainstream media. A CIA censor even removed a footnote from one of my manuscripts because it contained the headline of a story that linked the CIA to the use of drones.
Finally, we need to recognize that a great deal of classification of political materials is designed to prevent embarrassing the individuals or institutions involved in acts of policy. The Pentagon Papers is an excellent example of a document that presented no threat to national security, but did provide an understanding of the lies made to the American public — such as the so-called domino theory — to defend the use of force in Vietnam that cost 56,000 American lives as well as countless Vietnamese civilians.
There is no question that the government must protect its sources and methods in the collection of intelligence. Regarding substantive matters, however, with the exception of details on weapons systems as well as on sensitive negotiations, there are few legitimate secrets and almost none that must remain classified for more than 10 years. The secrecy that surrounded the Iran-Contra affair probably saved the Reagan presidency over the short term, but greater transparency would have prevented Iran-Contra from ever getting off the ground in the first place.
Our cold war culture of secrecy must be addressed. The loss of blood and treasure in two decades of fighting unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fueled to a great extent by phony intelligence in the case of Iraq and a disdain for history’s lessons in the case of Afghanistan. A policy of complete openness in most areas of information would lead to a more useful debate of national security issues and perhaps sounder policy choices.
Melvin A. Goodman, a former CIA intelligence analyst, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.