Top Secret Documents and Delays: Trump’s Troubles — Part One

Greg Markley


Columnist Molly Ivins told the story of a man seeking a seat on the Public Utilities Commission of Texas. In filling out an ethics form, he did fine when he wrote that he had a few minor traffic violations. But he added that he had shot a whooping crane, protected by the Endangered Species Act; he had to pay a $15,000 fine. Plus, he said he had killed the whooping crane while on a duck hunt. Whooping cranes grow as tall as five feet, dwarfing a duck.

Citizens of Texas, a state of hunters, noticed that and concluded he was so dumb that he hit a big bird, not the duck. Embarrassed, the nominee had to resign from his role. Former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence are being investigated for having top secret documents at their homes or offices. All appear to be offering rationales. This two-part series begins with Trump.

The FBI started a criminal investigation into the former president’s handling of classified government documents, especially those that would impact national security. The bureau was hunting for possible violations of the Espionage Act. Trump’s lawyers informed the national archives in December that they had found 12 boxes of documents at Mar-a-Lago.

I caution, as someone trained in archives, that we must be attuned to the words “document” and “box.” On your living room table, for instance, you may find a document in a piece of mail. Or you may open an Amazon container; that would likely be in a box. When someone claims another person has more top secret materials than himself, determine whether those are boxes full of classified items, or documents of which dozens can fit in a regular box.

“In a Fox News interview broadcast on Wednesday, Mr. Trump insisted that he ‘declassified everything.’ There does not have to be a formal process to do so, he added, because ‘if you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying ‘it’s declassified’ — even by thinking about it.’”

The paragraphs above are from “Presidential Power to Declassify Information, Explained,” in the Aug. 14, 2022, New York Times. I add that although a president has plenty of power and leverage, he cannot “declassify” anything without at least two things preceding. First, as archives officials have said, the president must log in what he is doing; second, the agencies that use those would-be declassified items must be notified.

There is a strong possibility that at least some of the documents may be sensitive or unfavorable for Trump, as he eyes his legacy. Having key parts hidden from historians is something presidents almost to a man desire. President Richard Nixon sought to minimize Watergate, but presidential archivists opted for more details of the scandal. President Bill Clinton was in no hurry to get an exhibit on Monica Lewinsky placed in his shrine in Little Rock.

A common definition for top secret is “a classification given to information that reasonably could be expected to cause ‘exceptionally grave’ damage to the national security.” “Secret” is defined for “information deemed to be able to cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if revealed.” Finally, confidential is the least sensitive level of classification, applied to information that is reasonably expected to cause ‘damage’ to national security if disclosed.

I had a fellow grad student at Auburn University who was a retired U.S. Navy captain. He said there was too much classification of items as top secret when he was in the military. He argued so many top secret documents might make people jaded — the opposite of what they should be: alert. In 2011, there were about as many people with top secret access as attorneys (1.2 to 1.23 million) in the United States.

While serving in an Army military history attachment at Fort McPherson, we all had top secret clearances. Why? Because we handled documents that were justifiably classed top secret. In assessing plans, doctrines and interviews, we and three training and doctrine command PhD historians had to always be on guard.

The practice was to get two signatures on each top secret cabinet drawer and then bolt it in so the doors could not open. The only signatures as a witness could be people like us, with top secret clearances. Luckily, there were a lot of people with top secret status at Fort McPherson because it hosted a major command.

When I had to leave for the day and no one I worked with was available, I could call someone at the main headquarters (“head shed”) and he or she would come there and sign, if they had the appropriate clearance and access.

This two-part series concludes next week with “Biden’s Blunders” and “Pence’s Problems.”

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM and a master’s in history from Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books.


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