Finding of classified documents reignites debate about what is confidential in the US

The discovery of classified documents in the private residences of Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Mike Pence has reignited the debate about an old practice of the government of USA, that each year seals millions of documents confidential.

Nuclear secrets, names of spies, diplomatic cables: around the world, governments are careful not to reveal information that could compromise their security, that of their agents or their relations with other states.

But in the United States, the desire for classification has, according to general opinion, assumed inordinate proportions.

Each year, about 50 million decisions are made about whether to mark government documents as "confidential", "secrets" either "top secrets"the experts estimate.

Nevertheless, "many of the classified documents are not as sensitive"Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) expert who now works at the Brookings Institute think tank, told AFP.

While it is legitimate to protect "Army plans for Ukraine" it may be questioned whether it is pertinent to mark as confidential "the cable announcing that the Secretary of State will travel to Israel on Monday"which is information published in the media, he said.

In 2016, a congressional report noted that "between 50 and 90% of the classified material is not well categorized".

The declassification sometimes provokes smiles, as when the CIA lifted the secret in 2011 about documents protected for almost a century that explained… how to create invisible ink.

According to Riedel, it is the fault of the "bureaucratic inertia": for an official "it’s safer to classify documents, so if someone asks you why it became public domain, you can say there was a leak".

"The original sin" 

the seal of "confidential" limits the number of people allowed to view these files and imposes strict storage rules. Violations are subject to prosecution.

Leaving the White House, Trump he made off with entire boxes of files, some of which included confidential documents, earning him a search of his Florida home last summer.

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Recently, documents of this nature were also found, to a lesser extent, in the homes of his former vice president, Mike Pence, and Trump’s Democratic successor, Joe Biden.

"Some will conclude that the procedures governing the use of classified documents are too lax, but this is not the case."said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice think tank.

"The culprit is elsewhere"he wrote in a column published by the weekly The Nation. "It lies in the original sin that explains almost all the dysfunctions of the system: we classify too many" documents.

"cynical and unconscious"

This problem was already identified a long time ago.

In 1971, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart noted that "when everything is classified, nothing is classified, and the system is ignored by the cynics or the unconscious, who even manipulate it for their personal benefit".

On various occasions, presidents or Congress have tried to address this issue.

"Democrat Bill Clinton’s administration had made good progress in the 1990s, but this progress was reversed after 9/11." 2001, lamented Ben Wizner of the powerful ACLU civil rights association.

For him, the authorities classified documents by handfuls, among other things, to "hide evidence of torture of prisoners" in Iraq or Afghanistan, or "in CIA drone programs".

Beyond transparency issues, overclassification also hurts management efficiency, according to Wizner.

"Complicates communications and limits the number of people who can be consulted on important issues"said.

Also, "gives the government too much leeway to choose who should be prosecuted". While some whistleblowers received lengthy prison sentences, "I doubt Trump, Biden or Pence will be convicted for breaking the rules…".

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