All of a sudden classified documents are showing up in more homes than those of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, and I’m more than certain more could be found. While Trump willfully knew about the hundreds of documents he kept and insisted that they were his, it appears that both Biden and Pence were unaware that classified documents were included among their personal papers.

Given the volume of papers crossing their desks, it’s hardly surprising that comparatively small numbers of classified documents slipped through scrutiny. But the hullabaloo over Biden and Pence ignores a far larger problem.

Part of the problem is that the classification system is broken. More than forty years back when I was a Navy pilot and then a Congressional staffer, everyone in defense-related fields new that far too much information was overclassified, and that much of that information that couldn’t ever have been kept out of public view. Aviation Week was known in the military-industrial community as “Aviation Leak.”

Since then the problem has grown, partly because it’s far easier to classify information than to ask if it really needs to be classified, partly because classification is also a way to mute public and media criticism , and partly because the media has become more and more tabloid, ever more willing to disclose and publicize not only material that should never have been classified, but also to publicize information that legitimately should not be presently in the public domain.

Too much information that was classified legitimately years and years ago remains classified, not because its disclosure now would be detrimental to national security, but because its disclosure would be detrimental to the national image or to the reputation of institutions and individuals. But you can’t learn from past mistakes if you never know what they were and if you accept the images founded on incomplete information.

And the media, unfortunately, can’t be trusted to determine what should or shouldn’t be made public, especially not when the media’s primary goal has become profits, and when disclosing secrets raises ratings and, consequently, profits.

Nor can the military be totally trusted, but details and specifications for new weapons systems don’t belong in the public domain. Neither do intelligence findings about foreign military readiness… nor do the names of covert intelligence operatives.

What’s necessary is a balancing of interests and national needs, but balance doesn’t serve the short-term interests of politicians, the media, or the military-industrial complex…which is why we have an overclassification problem.

4 thoughts on “Classified!”

  1. Tim says:

    I remember working with developing a highly classified NATO document in the UK. Any document it referenced had to be similarly classified, including a set of abbreviations which was actually a standard document used through the military. But rules are rules, so that document was cloned and appropriately classified.

    Also it was printed on bright red paper to avoid photocopy risk, had to be locked in a secure cabinet and every now and then I had to produce it in a random inspection.

    Every document was individually officialy referenced and had to be owned by someone.

    As the new and fresh arrival I found myself being volunteered as custodian whilst my elder and wiser colleagues took a long step back.


  2. Bill says:

    Many documents are over classified because a higher classification won’t get anyone in trouble where as an incorrect lower classification will.
    Another factor is that classifying software or other industry tech is even better for protecting a business’s interest than a patent or a copyright especially since anything can be classified even if it doesn’t quality for a patent or a copyright.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Put some retired federal judges (or someone else reliable but independent) on declassification review boards to help ensure information does not remain needlessly classified. Or some other similar measure to tackle that end.

    But there also has to be (constitutionally careful) more vigorous pursuit of leakers, esp. those who in some sense profit from leaking (or do so at the behest of others). Both would be needed, to protect either sort of abuse AND the integrity of the system.

  4. Tom says:

    Controlling knowledge of the source is often more important than the information. This factor can multiply the paper which needs classification. The Politico cartoon, referencing the IRS, is a sign of our US times.

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