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Government & Politics

To the Point: Why Classified Documents are Popping Up Everywhere

Distinguished Professor of History Allan J. Lichtman answers our question of the week

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To the PointTo the Point provides insights from AU faculty experts on timely questions covering current events, politics, business, culture, science, health, sports, and more. Each week we ask one professor just one critical question about what’s on our minds.

What’s Going On with the Sudden Appearance of So Many Classified Documents?

Allan Lichtman: Although classified documents were found in the home or offices of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Joe Biden, the situations differ fundamentally. Trump possessed vastly more classified documents than Biden or Pence. He obstructed efforts to recover the documents, falsely claiming that they belonged to him. Both Biden and Pence cooperated with federal officials. Unless new incriminating information is uncovered, the possession of documents by Biden and Pence should not affect any potential Trump indictments. Without indictments, the political fallout will fade as officials of both parties are involved, although to different degrees. 

These revelations have panicked the National Archives into asking former officials to search for classified documents in their possession. This palliative addresses the symptoms but not the cure. A broken system vastly overclassifies documents, some fifty million per year at the cost of more than $18 billion. “Everything’s secret,” Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and NSA (National Security Agency), said, “I got an email saying, ‘Merry Christmas.’ It carried a Top-Secret NSA classification marking.” 

Reform would make public access, not classification, the default option for documents. A classification ombudsperson should be assigned to each agency to monitor over-classification. Agency officials should be rewarded, not punished, for making information open to the public, and the tracking of documents needs to be upgraded. An independent commission should recommend declassification strategies and identify precise, limited, and uniform classification criteria. Currently, there are 2,116 separate federal classification guides. 

A substantial reduction in classification decisions would guard against the mishandling of documents and give the American people information to check government actions. As the US Supreme Court affirmed, “an informed public is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment.”

About the Author

Distinguished Professor of History Allan J. Lichtman focuses his scholarship on the American presidency, conservative politics, quantitative methodology, and voting rights and redistricting. He has published more than 100 scholarly and popular articles as well as 13 books, including, most recently, 13 Cracks: Repairing American Democracy After Trump (Rowman & Littlefield, November 2021). Professor Lichtman's prediction system, the Keys to the White House, has correctly predicted the outcomes of all US presidential elections since 1984. He was listed by as #85 among 100 most influential geopolitical experts in the world and received the lifetime achievement award from Who's Who.