On November 8 Donald J. Trump Jr., the President’s oldest son, tweeted: “DECLASSIFY EVERYTHING!!!” adding “We can’t let the bad actors get away with it.”
This was not an actual policy proposal and it was not seriously intended for classification officials or even for Trump’s own father, who as President is the one ultimately responsible for classification policy.
Rather, it was directed at Trump Jr.’s 6.4 million Twitter followers, telling them that classification is a corrupt process that protects “bad actors” and that must therefore be discredited and dismantled. It’s a juvenile notion but not, given the size and malleability of Trump’s audience, an inconsequential one.
To the extent that national security classification is in fact required, for example, to protect advanced military technologies, the conduct of diplomacy or the collection of intelligence, it is important to establish and maintain the legitimacy of classification policy. For the same reason, abuse of classification authority can itself be a threat to national security.
The current executive order on classification policy (sect. 1.7a(1)) directs that “in no case shall information be classified . . . in order to conceal violations of law.”
But this is merely a limitation on the classifier’s mental state — which is unverifiable — and not on classification itself. It is entirely permissible for classified information to conceal violations of law, according to a judicial interpretation of the executive order, as long as the information is not classified with that specific purpose (“in order to”) in mind. This is a standard that has never been enforced and that is probably unenforceable.
So one step that the incoming Biden Administration could take to enhance the integrity and accountability of classification policy would be to direct that classification may not conceal violations of US law at all, whether or not that is the intent of classifying. (It is probably necessary to specify “US” law since classified intelligence collection may often involve the violation of foreign laws.)
Donald Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush who made no formal changes to the executive order on classification policy.
Instead, Trump often defied or disregarded existing classification and declassification policies, withholding previously public information (e.g. the number of nuclear warheads dismantled each year) and disclosing normally classified information (e.g. an actual application for counterintelligence surveillance) when it advanced his political interests to do so.
But it seems that arbitrary secrecy combined with selective declassification is not the way to stop “bad actors.”