You’ve heard of the one percent-ers, but how about the one-third percent-ers? 1.3 million Americans hold Top Secret security clearances, which amounts to essentially a third of a percent of us. This elite priesthood may know things the rest of us don’t because, well, they’ve been cleared. If recent scandals surrounding the current and immediate past presidents are any indication, this two-tiered system of knowledge we have isn’t necessarily serving us well.
On Monday, Americans learned that classified documents had been found locked in a closet at the PENN-Biden Center, where Joe Biden hung his hat for the interval between his service as vice-president and his current gig. The Schadenfreude effect this seemed to have on smug media sources still gloating about the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last August was indeed more chilling than the Maine air. For a moment, NPR correspondents struggled for words.
Because the documents in both cases are classified, we cannot know specifically what they are. Media reports suggest in Biden’s case they included country assessments that had been prepared for the then vice-president’s travel, while in Trump’s case they are said to involve nuclear secrets (plus, pundits said, the FBI found ketchup stains on them, making the former president’s potential legal liability greater, of course.)
These kinds of indiscretions are nothing new. Under the Clinton administration they seemed to multiply. Then-CIA Director John Deutch resigned in 1996 following reports that he mishandled classified material on a laptop he’d brought home. Just prior to this, he’d fallen out of favor with the administration after telling Congress that Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein had grown stronger, not weaker, during Clinton’s first term. It was probably just a coincidence he then got hung up on the laptop matter.
Then former Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger got caught stealing classified documents from the National Archives by sticking them down his pants and into his sweaty sock. When questioned by the FBI about the missing documents, he initially lied. Those documents pertained to the state of the country’s counter-terrorism posture leading up to 9/11. In classic Washington fashion, Berger didn’t want to look bad, so he committed a crime. Predictably, he served no time.
As if neither warning meant anything, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton maintained her own home server on which classified material was improperly stored, multiple reports indicated. When New York police investigating sex crimes by her assistant’s husband found classified material on yet another home computer, a scandal ensued that many believe cost Clinton the presidency in 2016.
When I briefly held an interim clearance during the second Bush administration, my instinct was to treat classified material as though it were nuclear fuel rods, ie. very carefully. Never mention it, never refer to it, and certainly don’t bring it home. Yet herein lies the difference between people of consequence and the little ones for whom the laws actually apply. At the same time then-FBI Director James Comey was clearing Clinton of wrongdoing, an Army officer who used his Hotmail account to warn colleagues in the field that an Afghan warlord was a child rapist was prosecuted with the full force of the law. We little people can smell a double standard when it festers in front of us.
There appears to be a common thread running through all these instances. High-ranking officials abuse their access to state secrets either to protect themselves from reasonable scrutiny or, worse still, as business development materials.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, who is under constant attack from the Democrats’ left flank for not having already indicted Trump, now finds himself in a new pickle. It is certainly possible that the famously forgetful Biden really did fail to remember he’d brought classified material to his interim office. But even so, why would he have needed it when no longer a constitutional officer?
The big people out there aren’t getting the message and the Justice Department needs to figure out what its going to do about that – especially as a parallel House investigation into Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings turns up the heat. Information-wise, we already live in a two-tiered country. The degree to which this is a good thing for us remains to be seen.
But do we have a two-tiered justice system too? A silly question, you say. Maybe, but stay tuned.