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Ranked: Keeping Nation’s Secrets Close

The documents scattered on the carpet at Mar-a-Lago, with their classification marks clearly visible, are tiny drops in a tsunami of secrets kept by the US government.

CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin asked John Fitzpatrick, who managed the flow of classified documents at both the Obama and Trump White Houses, “Do you have any estimates of how many classified documents there are?”

“That’s really unknowable,” he replied.

Fitzpatrick said the last reliable count was done when most classified documents existed only on paper. “They were in the tens of millions of documents a year,” he said.

“Has it become easier or more difficult to classify information?” Martin asked.

“In practice, it has become easier. The proliferation of classified computer networks provides an environment in which the proliferation of classified material increases.”

The attacks of September 11 and all the subsequent alarms of terrorist plots against the homeland brought with them a rise in the classification, which worries even the person in charge of keeping secrets, the director of national intelligence Avril Haines, who testified before Congress that the Overclassification is a national problem. security problem. Earlier this year, she wrote, “Deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security,” by making it difficult to share information with allies and the public.


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“It’s a pretty striking statement,” Martin said. “Is the system designed to keep national security secrets undermining national security?”

“I agree with her,” Fitzpatrick said. “There is a culture of classification: protecting secrets is always better than divulging them. It’s a false binary, but it’s the way people do it.”

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said: “Most of the secrecy isn’t about real harm. It’s about preventing one form or another of embarrassment from the government.”

For the past 35 years, the National Security Archive has used the Freedom of Information Act to open loose boxes upon boxes of previously classified documents. “We’ve probably seen on the order of 10 million to 20 million pages of declassified US government documents over the years,” Blanton said.

The walls are lined with some of his favorites. He showed one to Martin: “It’s an internal CIA email about the torture program, and specifically how they destroyed the videotapes of the water boarding.”

If the CIA submarine tapes of captured al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaidah were ever made public, the memo said, “it would make us look terrible; it would be ‘devastating’ for us.”

Blanton said: “This document would have remained classified indefinitely under the protection of CIA sources and methods.”

“Do you file freedom of information law requests on a daily basis?”

“About 1,500 a year.”

“How many people are out there who can classify documents?”

“Nearly 5 million.”

The current classification system grew out of the secret project to build the atomic bomb, possibly the biggest secret in history. The head of the project, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, later wrote that he would keep it a secret from “the Germans,” “the Japanese,” “the Russians,” “all other nations,” and “those who would interfere.” which included Congress.

“What General Groves created in the national security classification system was a huge success, and that universe is still expanding,” Blanton said.

The three basic levels of classification are Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Confidential information would cause “harm” to national security if disclosed; secrecy would cause “serious harm”; and top secret “exceptionally serious harm”.

Beyond Top Secret is SCI (which stands for Confidential Compartmentalized Information, also known as Special Access Programs). “Those are considered the government’s best kept secrets,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Do you have any idea how many Special Access Programs there are?” Martin asked.

“Ultimately, you’re talking hundreds,” he replied.

Each special access program has its own code name. Here is a once top secret memo stating that “satellite photographs are to be handled in a separate compartment known as the TALENT-KEYHOLE.” A document like this would be kept in a room called a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. “There are physical standards to lock them down, alarm them and soundproof them,” Fitzpatrick said.

The best-known SCIF is the White House Situation Room, where the president meets with his national security advisers. All presidential libraries are equipped with SCIF, but there is no SCIF at Mar-a-Largo.

Martin asked, “Does the President of the United States have a security clearance?”

“The answer is no,” Fitzpatrick said. “The president derives the authority from him to view any classified information from the constitutional authorities from him.”

“Is the president supposed to have a need to know absolutely everything?”


“Can the president just order a document to be declassified?”

“Yes. The president’s authority to classify or declassify information is derived from his own constitutional authority.”

When he was president, Donald Trump declassified the transcript of his phone call with Ukraine President Zelensky asking for help digging up dirt on Hunter Biden. All original classification markings on it have been crossed out and it is clearly marked “Unclassified”.

The unclassified report on President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky seeking “a favor” in exchange for military aid.

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Compare that to the documents the FBI scattered on the floor after their search at Mar-a-Largo.

Some of the classified documents found at Trump’s residence in Florida.

Justice Department

“There’s not a line through those marks,” Blanton said. “There is no stamp that says: ‘This was published on date X, someone’s authority.’ Even when the president says, ‘I want something declassified,’ there’s a whole process that he has to go through.”

Most documents are not declassified until long after they have been sent to a presidential library, such as the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, where all the documents of his administration are stored and where, more than half a century later, some still remain classified.

Blanton recently asked the George W. Bush Library to declassify notes from the president’s preparatory sessions for his first meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2001: “Great moment in history. This was 22 years ago, when Putin was still our friend. It might even do us some good today by deciphering Putin’s grievances, and perhaps some off-ramps from this current tragedy in Ukraine that Putin started.”

The National Security Archive submitted its FOIA request in January of this year. “The kind folks at the George W. Bush Library in Dallas said, ‘I’m sorry to break it to you, Mr Blanton, but it will be 12 years before they do.'”

Martin asked, “Which side is winning? The forces of classification or the forces of declassification?”

“Oh, the ranking forces have bought a lot of time!” Blanton answered.

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Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Lauren Barnell.

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