When Did National Security Become Irrelevant?

When Did National Security Become Irrelevant?

© David Burton 2023

National Security

     With all the outstanding questions about who packed up then-Vice President Joe Bidenís files in the Obama Administrationís final days, who unpacked them and why documents with classified markings were unlawfully removed in the process, one fact is pretty well-established. Bidenís testy response to a reporterís question about how such documents ended up next to his Corvette (ďBy the way, my Corvette is in a locked garage. Ok? So itís not like itís sitting out in the street.Ē) was God-awful. It may not have matched Donald Trumpís document defense (ďYouíre the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying itís declassified, even by thinking about itĒ), but it was bad.
     While it remains a stretch to imagine that the departing Vice President personally packed his papers, there are plenty of legitimate questions. They are questions, of course, to which the Biden White House generally canít respond publicly, for reasons that are also legitimate. It knows that the media is demanding answers to what happened when, who knew it and what the classified documents said, and that not providing them quickly subjects the president to withering criticism. Thatís the way that works.
     But White House personnel and Bidenís lawyers arenít at all in a position even to know what those answers are, let alone to state them publicly. This is because there are individuals who worked in the Vice Presidentís office, or at Bidenís Washington think tank or on his personal staff who have to be questioned ó and neither the White House nor Bidenís own lawyers can interview them. From the outset the Department of Justice (DOJ) and a Special Counsel were conducting an investigation, and no one could contact these people without risking being perceived as interfering with it.
     And making statements that may later prove incomplete or inaccurate will generate its own political problems, if not legal ones.
     But this is Washington, after all, where being loudly irresponsible trumps being circumspect every time. It was hilarious to see Congressional Republicans be silent as a graveyard when Trump removed over 300 classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, stonewalled requests for their return, then disobeyed a grand jury subpoena and then had an attorney lie about the ongoing concealment of top-secret materials. These same Congressional Republicans then decided that 20 classified documents found under Bidenís control were a very big deal. When pressed to explain this flagrant hypocrisy, the cat didnít only have their tongue. It had their larynx.
     In January of 2023, the new Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Ohio Republican and Trump favorite Jim Jordan, demanded that Attorney General Merrick Garland turn over documents that Jordan knew could not be turned over while the investigation of President Bidenís handling of the classified documents was ongoing. Jordan was the Republicansí exemplary choice to head the Judiciary Committee since he isnít a lawyer and never even took the bar exam. He calls himself a lawyer ďwannabe,Ē which is just what you want to have running the Judiciary Committee. He did, however, vote to reject the electoral votes in the 2020 election, and blew off a subpoena issued by another Congressional committee compelling him to answer questions under oath about the January 6 Capitol breach.
     Republican Representative James Comer, the incoming chair of the newly-named Oversight and Accountability Committee, was understandably stumped when asked why, if he was so ďconcernedĒ about the 20 classified documents found among Bidenís papers, he pronounced the over 300 taken by Trump to Florida ďnot a priority.Ē And the Republican Speaker Kevin (ďItís about transparency!Ē) McCarthy, who opposed an investigation into Trumpís pilfering of classified material and obstruction of justice, demanded an investigation into Biden.
     So, at the end of January 2023, hereís where we stood: About the Biden document debacle we didnít know much. About Congressional Republicans we knew all we needed to.[1]

     The revelations about the handling of classified documents involving President Joe Biden - and previously former President Donald Trump - have raised concerns about the procedures for keeping and tracking such records.
     According to John Cohen, a former Department of Homeland Security acting undersecretary for intelligence, some of the legal and other requirements for keeping and tracking classified material is as follows.
     According to experts, the White House security office makes arrangements to safely store classified documents securely at other locations such as residences. When a president or vice president leaves office, the White House and its staff are obligated to return all government records covered under the Presidential Records Act, which includes all classified documents. BUT, For the majority of classified documents, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure they get returned. It essentially boils down to an honor system. Only the most highly sensitive documents operate under a check-out, check-in system, and that represents only a small percentage of all classified documents. It thus appears that RHIP Ė Rank Has Its Privileges Ė different security rules apply for us ordinary citizens!
     Most of the time, missing or mishandled documents are only discovered in one of two ways: someone either self-reports or someone discovers them and then reports it. The security system usually doesnít uncover the violation.
     ABC News reported that some documents found at the Penn Biden Center were marked top secret, but even top-secret materials would not typically operate under a sign-in, sign-out system. That system would apply only to top secret documents with an associated compartment -- for example, TS/SCI (top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information).
     In the case of presidential material sent to the National Archives, it relies on the outgoing White House for a full accounting of the documents the administration is turning over, again, essentially an honor system.
     The White House security office in every administration is tasked with properly preparing staff to preserve their records and ensure that all government documents, notes, etc., including those that may be classified, are accounted for and returned.
     It should be apparent that the honor system is subject to failure, and not everyone complies fully or is sufficiently careful. Classified materials could be inadvertently packed without the appropriate oversight. QUESTION: Since when and by whom was it decided that the nationís security should be left to an honor system?
     In the case of Donald Trump, the National Archives realized that especially sensitive records from his administration were missing, such as Trump's letter to North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un.
     Also, it was only after 15 boxes were retrieved from Mar-a-Lago that the National Archives discovered they included documents with classification markings. The Archives also became aware of additional missing government papers through congressional investigations. For example, the House Jan. 6 committee made several requests of the Archives for specific documents and when the Archives went to search for them, some were not there.
     With both Biden and Trump, records with classification markings were not properly handled or secured and were discovered after both left office.[2]

     Clearly, much of the fire and brimstone over Trump and Bidenís handling Ė or mishandling - of classified material has been nothing but political posturing. BUT - and to me thatís a most significant but - there is a much more real and important issue. That issue is national security and the handling of classified material!

     For all of my professional career as an engineer, and even before that, as an engineering student and part-time employee at MIT, I held national security clearances that ranged from CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET and above. Handling classified material was an every-day matter in my work. I never took security to be routine. Classified documents were always signed for and scrupulously accounted for. Classified documents were always locked in an appropriate safe at work when not in use. On top of all that, periodic accounting was performed to verify that the classified material was where it was supposed to be.

     So here some 20+ plus years after I retired from work that was intimately involved with national security issues, I am at a total loss to understand how two United States presidents and their professional advisors could so callously mishandle classified documents and how they could then treat their security violations as irrelevant and unimportant. I also cannot understand how these security violations could go on for so without being detected by a security system and by security personnel that were supposed to be monitoring where and how the documents in question were being stored and handled. Who was guarding the hen house? I cannot perceive of such gross incompetence in matters of national security having existed when I possessed my security clearances. The thought of taking home classified material and leaving it unsecured in my garage or in my house would never have entered my mind. Such action would have been a security violation for which I could have been prosecuted.

     The investigations into the presidential mishandling of classified documents need to be elevated above politics. They are national security concerns and should be addressed in that light. The system is obviously broken. It needs to be repaired so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future.

     National security should never be performed on an "honor system" basis. It should never be one set of rules for the ordinary citizen and a different set of rules for someone "important", even if that "important" person is the president or vice president of the United States. The persons responsible for overseeing our national security should never be allowed to "look the other way" or "close their eyes" to security violations - even if the violations are committed by the highest elected officials in this nation.

     When I possessed my security clearance, there were very serious consequences for security violations, including: reprimand, loss of one's clearance (sometimes resulting in loss of one's job), and criminal prosecution (with potentially severe penalties). Deliberate flouting of the national security laws of this country were then regarded quite seriously. Nothing should have changed between then and now! Itís time to bring those responsible for violating the national security rules and laws of this nation to account and to ensure that such breaches of security will not be repeated in the future!

  1. Bidenís blunders fire up GOP lawmakers, Jeff Robbins, Boston Herald: Pge 19, 17 January 2023.
  2. Questions answered about tracking classified documents, Gabe Ferris, Katherine Faulders, Justin Fishel
    and Luke Barr, Yahoo.com, 13 January 2023.

  9 March 2023 {Article 567; Politics_78}    
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