There is much we still do not know about President Biden’s stash of secret documents, but one thing is painfully obvious: The system for protecting secrets vital to national security has spun out of control. The question is why.
No one should be surprised that documents marked secret keep showing up in strange places. Last July, the government’s own watchdog in charge of managing systems for protecting “national security information,” Mark Bradley, reported that this office decided to stop trying to count how many secrets the government created each year: “We can no longer keep our heads above the tsunami.”
No doubt partisan Republicans and Democrats will continue insisting that it is the other side that has recklessly endangered national security — when they are not insisting that “there’s nothing to see here” or claiming a partisan witch hunt that just serves to distract from what they call real issues (as Hillary Clinton did).
But how many more of these scandals need to explode before we recognize that there is a deeper problem, one that we cannot begin to solve unless we come together as a country and confront it head on?
This problem is not some “deep state,” conspiring in the shadows in defiance of our elected leaders. It’s true that many people profit from the current system, which costs over $18 billion a year — as of 2017, the last time Mr. Bradley’s office publicly guessed at a total — and allows countless unnamed bureaucrats to evade democratic oversight. Those involved in this system include even presidents, who have resisted almost any congressional oversight or judicial review in determining whether information should be classified or made public.
The president’s almost exclusive authority over determining what constitutes national-security information and who can have access to it is unlike anything else in American politics: a form of power that is fully sovereign, with almost no effective checks or balances. No wonder it has proved so intoxicating. Donald Trump’s refusal to release the classified documents he held at Mar-a-Lago — even after being warned that he was breaking the law — is just an extreme case of this powerful addiction, one that Joe Biden, after serving as vice president, may have struggled with as well.