I don’t think anyone really knows how many classified documents exist in the various branches of the federal government, but some of them have recently been found at the offices and homes of former President Donald Trump and the current occupant, Joe Biden. Biden’s seem to have been holdovers from his years as vice president. Special counsels have been appointed in both cases to discover if any laws — other than common sense — have been broken.

While it would be prudent to let the investigations decide the seriousness of these lapses, it has been reported that at least some of the documents found in Biden’s former office were briefing documents related to foreign trips. If you were planning a trip to Russia, you would be well advised to visit the Department of State website and get a briefing document to alert you to the pitfalls of travel to that worker’s paradise. It obviously wouldn’t be classified. But if you were vice president, your briefing document would include juicy details that your hosts might object to — and it would be classified.

I happen to have a Top Secret security clearance, although it’s not active. It seems you keep your security clearance — which I’ve had since 1961 — unless it’s specifically cancelled. The most famous cancellation involved J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the team that developed the Atomic Bomb. He lost his clearance in 1954 during the “Red Scare” because he had been associated in the 1930s with some “progressive” (read “Communist”) organizations, and had opposed the development of the Hydrogen Bomb. The Biden administration has recently restored his clearance, a purely symbolic gesture. He died in 1967, his career ruined.

My clearance was related to my service as a cryptographer in the U.S. Army from 1961-63. In case you think I labored to break Russian codes, that’s what a “crypto analyst” does. Instead, I used machines to encode and decode classified messages in a communications center located in La Rochelle, France. Lucky me! Or at least until I had to spend the last six months of my two-year service in middle of the Mojave Desert!

I had a Top Secret clearance because it was possible that I might have had to handle such a message. As it happened, I never had one classified higher than Secret.

By the way, the other (and lowest) classification was and is Confidential. These are still the main classifications, although there are permutations.

I still can’t tell you the content of the messages I encoded/decoded, but I was in the Army during the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile crises; and the early stages of the Vietnam debacle. The reason I was in La Rochelle? The Army operated a major supply port just down the Atlantic coast at La Pallice.

In addition to taking a lie-detector test, I found out later that the FBI had interviewed my friends, neighbors and employers. Homosexuals were barred from serving in the armed services then, so the lie-detector and background check were designed, among other things, to discover your sexual tendencies, or whether you were a Commie or anarchist. The sexual thing may have been related to the reports that several of the British intelligence officers who had spied for Russia had been gay, and it was presumed — without any real evidence — that their sexuality made them vulnerable to blackmail.     

By the way, having a Top Secret clearance doesn’t mean you have total access. For example, my signal company commander had the clearance (all officers do), but he wasn’t permitted access to the secure room where we did our work — we called it the “vault.” Even members of Congress, who are automatically given clearance, are only granted access on a “need to know” basis. Certain officials, including the president of course, are given total access.

Once I had decoded a message, it was either delivered personally or picked up by the addressee(s). They were required to show identification, proof of clearance, and sign a register. What they then did with it was out of my hands. Of course, that’s the rub. Legally, they had to store the message — or any classified material — in an approved safe, not in a box stored next to their favorite Corvette. Of course, that’s the problem. Who’s checking on this stuff? No one, it seems.

There are any number of cases where government employees — even C.I.A. agents like Aldrich Ames — walked off with classified documents and sold them to the Russians. And who can forget Chelsea (born Bradley Edward) Manning? But there are many more cases of simple carelessness. Instead of locking it up, bureaucrat X just leaves it on his desk; or brings it home to read later, where it gets mixed up with the bills and bank statements. Since there are millions of pages of this stuff floating around, is it any wonder that so much of it goes astray?

Every study of security classifications has concluded that much of it need not have been classified to begin with. Reform is suggested; reform never happens. It has also been suggested that documents are often classified to avoid disclosing embarrassing missteps or even illegal activities. I don’t doubt that for a minute.

Finally, I have a modest proposal. Let’s hire James Earl Jones to read the contents of the documents found at Mar a Lago and Wilmington and outload them on national television for all to hear.

It might take a while, but it could be quite amusing.

Pat Cannon is an Oak Park resident who writes a blog at cannonade.com.

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