How is the intricate system of classified documents in Washington in which Trump, Biden and Pence were trapped?

One of the boxes with secret documents mixed with personal memorabilia that former President Donald Trump kept at his Mar-a-lago residence and was found by the FBI. (US Department of Justice/Handout via REUTERS) (US Department of Justice/)

A lot of secret intelligence isn’t really secret, and what is secret isn’t always very smart. This apothegm has circulated for decades through the corridors of power in Washington. However, the document classification system is more alive than ever. Intelligence and secrecy have persisted since 1774, when the minutes of certain sessions of Congress were restricted to the public. Since then, administrations have followed one another and continue to accumulate a huge amount of classified documents that for some reason cannot be exposed. It is estimated that last year they were about 90 million documents that entered the system. three per second.

The system has a magnitude that is uncontrollable, said an official of the National Archives which is the institution in charge of keeping them. There are various levels of access. There are also various levels of document classification. Some 2,000 officials in Washington are in charge of classifying the level of security every day with which the documents should be filed. Presidents and vice presidents have almost unrestricted access. But like all other officials, they are prohibited from taking these papers home. Something they “forgot” to do Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Mike Pence. And now the three are locked in a legal labyrinth of unprecedented political consequences.

It all started when the courts initiated proceedings against Trump, who refused to hand over classified documents that they had been asking for for a year. He had them hidden in his mansion/club sea-to-lake, in Florida. His lawyers ended up delivering 15 boxes but they were left with another unspecified number of documents that Trump considers “privately owned”. President Biden criticized the attitude of his predecessor in every possible way until his own lawyers found papers classified as confidential in his own home in dellaware. A second inspection found another batch of documents a few days later. Former Vice President Pence came out to criticize the attitude of the current president until his own aides also found a batch of confidential reports in his house that should not be there. All three are now under investigation. The difference between Biden and Pence and Trump is that the former consider that they have made a “mistake” and that the latter maintains that these documents are their own.

White House Secret Service agents on duty last week during a search of classified documents at the home of President Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware.  REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Secret Service agents on duty last week during a search of classified documents at the home of President Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts (JOSHUA ROBERTS/)

The “Presidential Records Act” (PRA), a 1978 law, requires US presidents and vice presidents to transfer all their emails, letters, and other business documents to the National Archives. The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official files of a president, which went from being private to public as of January 20, 1981, when ronald reagan took possession of his post. The law also extends to the files of vice presidents. At the end of each term, the documents classified under different levels of security must be sent to the National Archives and those considered historical documents of the presidents are transferred to the presidential libraries and museums. These are purpose-built libraries and study centers after their term ends in their home states or at universities. Five years after they left the White House, the declassified documents become publicly accessible, but many others remain obscure for decades..

Of course none of this is new. The first resolution adopted in the United States to protect state secrets dates from September 6, 1774 when a law for congressmen was approved: “Resolved, that doors are kept closed during business timeand that the members consider themselves under the strongest obligations of honor, to keep the proceedings secret, until the majority orders that they be made public.”

Nor is it unprecedented in history. All the States managed and continue to do so based on secret resolutions. One of the most effective technological information classification actions known comes from the early Greeks. The secret orders traveled in special boxes covered with what they called the “Greek fire” It was a material that “was catapulted from one wooden naval combatant to another during the height of the Bronze Age, when the Greek city-states continually made war against each other and against any other enemies that might appear.” The coating on the boxes was made of some kind of tar or flammable organic substance and behaved much like napalm. The effects of “Greek fire” on the invading ships with wooden hulls and propelled by oars and sails were catastrophic. The actual ingredients were a closely guarded secret, so much so that they are not even known today. Another example of “classification” for purely military purposes cited by spymasters occurred during the Trojan War, when the Greek soldiers were hidden inside a wooden horse. That “classification action” was “declassified” rather quickly when they appeared and opened the gates of the ancient city of Troy. And the classic example of classification occurred in the year 300 BCwhen Sun Tzu Wrote “The Art of War”. He identified that “The training and procedure used by the military must not be disclosed in advance, it must be kept under secret orders.”

Trump Administration officials taking documents from the White House.
Trump Administration officials taking boxes of documents from the White House hours before the end of Donald Trump’s term. (Mandel Ngan, AFP)

All documents produced in the White House must be sent to the National Archives to be classified. It is believed that about 2,000 people are in charge of this task. It is supposed that they are intelligence agents and lawyers of the highest level who thus have access to an infinite amount of information. They determine whether a document requires security clearance. There are three levels of classification: “confidential”, the lowest; “secret” and “top secret”. In this way they can return to the hands of the officials who need it, but as long as they have the appropriate level of access. It is estimated that 1.3 million people have the highest level to access these secrets. In any case, these officials can only access the information “non-military”. The level with the information emanating from the Pentagon and the security agencies is extremely restricted and with higher levels than that of civilians.

On the other hand, the so-called espionage law, prohibits US officials from storing classified documents in unauthorized and unsecured locations. This obviously includes moving them to their private residences once they have left public office. Any person who intentionally conceals or destroys official documents “may be fined and imprisoned for a maximum of three years, and may be disqualified from holding public office and from being elected to office”. Although before justice has to determine if it was done “intentionally”. And from here they are taken at the White House. Biden’s attorney, Richard Sauber, said he was confident that the newly appointed special counsel’s investigation robert hur prove that classified documents found in a private residence and office of the current president “they got lost accidentally”. Pence’s lawyers are traveling along the same route, who himself gave the order that they review his files in search of documents at his Indiana home.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 26: A man walks past the United States National Archives building on October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.  Later today the National Archives will release more than 3,000 classified files on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/AFP)
The National Archives building in Washington where thousands of documents are classified every day to determine whether they should be considered secret or publicly disclosed. (Photo by Mark Wilson/AFP) (Mark Wilson/)

The Trump thing is much more complicated. It was the officials of the National Archives who realized that the documents were missing. Trump refused to return them. Most of them were classified as “top secret”. According to the Department of Justice, the documents were “probably hidden and withdrawn” of a storage room. For this reason, Trump is also facing an investigation for possible obstruction of Justice. US law provides a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for “obstructing a federal investigation by destroying, falsifying, or concealing documents.”

The epidemic of secret documents in the hands of former top officials – in Biden’s case, they date from his time as vice president – ​​is rethinking the problem of classification and secrecy in Washington. are thinking of “technological solutions”, according to a congressman interviewed by CBS. Although he clarified that they were not looking to replace “a cloud of papers” for “a cloud of bits” because “the only thing we will achieve is that the clouds collide and we cause a perfect storm”.

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