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A brief history of 'misplaced' classified documents

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

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. He's 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 that's three times every second.

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

CONNELLY: Well, yeah, there's 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 they're dealing with some program or some capability that's considered secret or top-secret, they're supposed to classify that, you know, whether it's 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 can't even count how many times they're creating new secrets every year.

RASCOE: So, I mean, you've 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 can't 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, I'm more worried about, you know, how it is we're 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 it's hard to say, when you say someone's caught with classified documents, the level of importance and significance of that. That's what I would imagine.

CONNELLY: Absolutely right, Ayesha. And, you know, as an historian, I've looked at thousands of documents that are classified top-secret, and I can tell you not all of them are super interesting. There's 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 it's the only - virtually the only form of presidential power that's fully sovereign. They're basically accountable to no one. And so, yes, presidents hang on to these secrets, and they're 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 don't know, right? But to me, the real scandal here - and this goes back decades. This isn't about any particular administration. It's the fact that public officials are basically stealing our property. When they refuse or fail to return records to the National Archives, they're taking our history, right? And so in this particular case, it's 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 he's been fighting ever since, refusing to give it back, right? In the case of Biden, he's telling us it was a mistake. Now, that said, I'm a little troubled that one of the folders where they found these documents apparently was marked personal. It's far from personal. It's actually public property. It's 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. They're 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: That's Matthew Connelly, professor of history at Columbia University. His book "The Declassification Engine" is out next month. Thank you for being with us.

CONNELLY: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.