Guest columnist Richard Slzosek: I know your secret 

  • The statement by President Joe Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer is photographed on Saturday. AP

Published: 2/1/2023 2:34:58 PM
Modified: 2/1/2023 2:34:46 PM

For the past three years, the Standing Committee of the Calvin Coolidge Museum and Forbes Library have been sponsoring a monthly presidential book club. The next president to be discussed is Jimmy Carter and the book that has been chosen is the 2021 biography, “The Outlier” by Kai Bird.

In January 1977, Carter had chosen Theodore Sorenson to head the CIA and on pages 146 -149 of Bird’s book there is a discussion as to what happened to that nomination. Sorenson had been JFK’s speech writer and, during the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, he had written an affidavit stating that the government classified too many documents and that government officials routinely took some home. He then said he himself had taken home seven boxes of classified papers when he left the White House. On page 148 there is a quote from Senator Joe Biden who had originally supported Sorenson but then changed his mind when he learned of the affidavit. Biden said, ” Honestly, I’m not sure whether or not Mr. Sorenson could be indicted or convicted under the espionage statutes.” In lieu of recent revelations concerning the president, former vice-president Pence and, of course, ex-president Trump, that quote is a classic example of the more things change, the more they remain the same. One cannot help but wonder if there will be further discoveries of such documents from earlier administrations.

Those of us who grew up watching war movies and reading spy novels were inculcated with the idea that classified documents were kept in impenetrable vault-like safes and that espionage agents risked their lives attempting to get at them. It is a head-shaking moment to realize that, at least since the 1960s, high-ranking officials with top security clearances, have regularly removed classified working papers to their homes. Their intent likely was to use the papers as reference material in writing their memoirs or perhaps just to impress the grandchildren at how important they once were. Nevertheless, it seems that all a modern-day spy need do is to acquire a job at an office or home cleaning service to gain access to classified papers. But then again, most of those papers are likely so irrelevant and uninteresting that no spy would be interested in them.

It undoubtedly gives a bureaucrat a bit of a buzz to stamp confidential on a paper and I would not be surprised to learn that the White House chef classifies his grocery shopping list. Clearly the intelligence agencies and the military must classify many documents, but for most of the bureaucracy the over-classification problem seems to be out of control. With all those “secret papers” floating about in private homes, the nation has still managed to survive. Notwithstanding that fact, I hope President Biden appoints a bi-partisan commission to examine the problem and that they do not make their findings and recommendations confidential.

Richard Szlosek lives in Northampton.
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