February 6, 2023 - Podcast

Episode 343 — Classified documents

The handling of classified documents has made the headlines recently, with such materials being uncovered at the homes and offices of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, and former Vice President Mike Pence. But what does that mean for national security?

Asaf Lubin, associate professor of law at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University and a fellow at the IU's Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, says the discovery of these classified documents should be the cause of grave concern.

The discoveries reveal fundamental flaws in the way our government handles sensitive information, he says. The main worry is that if top government officials, like presidents and vice-presidents, are unable to keep our nation’s secrets safe – who can? The risk is of course, that sensitive materials might fall in the hands of those who wish us harm. Additionally, the revelations could also indicate that the officials in question mishandled classified information, which requires careful investigation by the Department of Justice.

The mismanagement of classified materials puts our national security at risk. Consider, for example, the more than 300 classified documents found in former President Trump’s Mar-A-Lago home. Among them were Top Secret sensitive compartmented information (or TS/SCI as it is more commonly known in intelligence parlance). TS/SCI refers to classified information derived from sensitive intelligence sources and methods. It now appears, though investigation is still ongoing, that TS/SCI materials were also found in the former Washington office of President Biden. Lubin says the fact that these secret materials were placed in an insecure area by both a current and former President, without anyone knowing about it for months, puts our intelligence agents, our informants, and the very tools they utilize every single day to defend this country from foreign and domestic threats into grave jeopardy.

Part of the issue, Lubin says, is that there are annually 50 million classifications across the federal government. The sheer magnitude means it is practically impossible for any one agency to effectively manage these materials. This over classification results from both a lack of clear guidelines for classification and a culture of secrecy within the intelligence community, he says. Over-classifying documents stifles accountability and denies access by policy makers who need such access to make sound decisions.

Lubin's suggestion is for a Congressional intervention. Classifications are currently regulated by a set of executive orders and internal government agency guidelines. He says it is high time for Congress to classification reforms through legislation, establish independent review boards to assist in declassification and work through funding and oversight to mitigate the negative consequences of over classification.