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Thanks to Donald Trump, secrecy is big news these days. However, as political pundits and legal experts race to expose the layers of document-related misdeeds previously buried at his Mar-a-Lago estate, one overlooked reality looms large: despite all the coverage of the thousands of documents Trump took with him when he left the White House, there’s been next to no acknowledgment that such a refusal to share information has been part and parcel of the Washington scene for far longer than the current moment.
The hiding of information by the former president, repeatedly described as “unprecedented” behavior, is actually part of a continuum of withholding that’s been growing at a striking pace for decades. By the time Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, the stage had long been set for removing information from the public record in an alarmingly broad fashion, a pattern that he would take to new levels.
The “Secrecy President”
As recent history’s exhibit number one, this country’s global war on terror, launched soon after the 9/11 attacks, was largely defined and enabled by the withholding of information — including secret memos, hidden authorizations, and the use of covert methods. During President George W. Bush’s first term in office, government lawyers and officials regularly withheld information about their actions and documents related to them from public view, both at home and abroad.
Those officials, for instance, legalized the brutal interrogations of war-on-terror prisoners, while conveniently replacing the word “torture” with the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” and so surreptitiously evading a longstanding legal ban on the practice. The CIA then secretly utilized those medieval techniques at “black sites” around the world where its agents held suspected terrorists. It later destroyed the tapes made of those interrogations, erasing the evidence of what its agents had done. On the home front, in a similarly secretive fashion, unknown to members of Congress as well as the general public, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to set up an elaborate and far-reaching program of warrantless surveillance on Americans and others inside the United States.
Consider that the launching of an era of enhanced secrecy techniques. No wonder Bush earned the moniker of the “secrecy president.” Only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, for instance, he put in place strict guidelines about who could brief Congress on classified matters, while instituting new, lower standards for transparency. He even issued a signing statement rebuking Congress for requiring reports “in written form” on “significant anticipated intelligence activities or significant intelligence failure.” To emphasize his sense of righteousness in defying calls for information, he insisted on the “president’s constitutional authority to… withhold information” in cases of foreign relations and national security. In a parallel fashion, his administration put new regulations in place limiting the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
President Obama also withheld information when it came to war-on-terror efforts. Notably, his administration shrouded in secrecy the use of armed drones to target and kill suspected terrorists (and civilians) in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Official reports omitted reliable data about who was killed, where the killings had taken place, or the number of civilian casualties. As the American Civil Liberties Union concluded, administration reporting on civilian harm fell “far short of the standards for transparency and accountability needed to ensure that the government’s targeted killing program is lawful under domestic and international law.”
And well beyond the war-on-terror context, the claim to secrecy has become a government default mechanism. Tellingly, the number of classified documents soared to unimaginable heights in those years. As the National Archives reports, in 2012, documents with classified markings — including “top secret,” “secret,” and “confidential” — reached a staggering 95 million. And while the overall numbers had declined by 2017, the extent of government classification then and now remains alarming.
Erasing the Record Before It’s Created
President Trump’s document theft should be understood, then, as just another piece of the secrecy matrix.
Despite his claim — outrageous, but perhaps no more than so many other claims he made — to being the “most transparent” president ever, he turned out to be a stickler for withholding information on numerous fronts. Taking the war-on-terror behavioral patterns of his predecessors to heart, he expanded the information vacuum well beyond the sphere of war and national security to the purely political and personal realms. As a start, he refused to testify in the Mueller investigation into the 2016 presidential election. On a more personal note, he also filed suit to keep his tax records secret from Congress.
In fact, during his time in office, Trump virtually transformed the very exercise of withholding information. In place of secrecy in the form of classification, he developed a strategy of preventing documents and records from even being created in the first place.
Three months into his presidency, Trump announced that the White House would cease to disclose its visitor logs, citing the supposed risk to both national security and presidential privacy. In addition to hiding the names of those with whom he met, specific high-level meetings took place in an unrecorded fashion so that even the members of his cabinet, no less the public, would never know about them.
As former National Security Advisor John Bolton and others have attested, when it came to meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump even prohibited note-taking. In at least five such meetings over the course of his first two years in office, he consistently excluded White House officials and members of the State Department. On at least one occasion, he even confiscated notes his interpreter took to ensure that there would be no record.
Congress, too, was forbidden access to information under Trump. Lawyers in the Department of Justice (DOJ) drafted memos hardening policies against complying with congressional requests for information in what former DOJ lawyer Annie Owens has described as “a policy that approached outright refusal” to share information. In addition, the Trump administration was lax or even dismissive when it came to compliance with the production of required reports on national security matters. Note as well the reversal of policies aimed at transparency, as in the decision to reverse an Obama era policy of making public the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. possessed.
But don’t just blame Donald Trump. Among the most recent examples of erasing evidence, it’s become clear that the Secret Service deleted the text messages of its agents around the president from the day before and the day of the January 6th insurrection. So, too, the phone records of several top Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were wiped clean when they left office in accordance with directives established early in the Trump presidency. Similarly, the phone records of top Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security officials were scrapped. In other words, recent reports on the way Trump regularly shredded documents, flushed them down the White House toilet, and generally withheld presidential papers — even classified documents, as revealed during the Mar-a-Lago search — were of a piece with a larger disdain on the part of both the president and a number of his top officials for sharing information.
Erasing the record in one fashion or another became the Trump administration’s default setting, variations on a theme hammered out by his predecessors and taken to new levels on his watch.
A Perpetual Right to Secrecy?
Admittedly, before Trump arrived on the scene, there were some efforts to reverse this pattern, but in the long run they proved anemic. Barack Obama arrived at the White House in January 2009 acknowledging the harm caused by excessive government secrecy. Emphasizing transparency’s importance for accountability, informed public debate, and establishing trust in government, the new president issued an executive order on his first full day in office emphasizing the importance of “transparency and open government” and pledging to create “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”
Nearly a year later, he followed up with another executive order setting out a series of reforms aimed at widening the parameters for information-sharing. That order tightened guidelines around classification and broadened the possibilities for declassifying information. “Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government,” it read. Six years later, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper produced a report on the “principles of Intelligence transparency for the intelligence community” and a “transparency implementation plan” that again aimed at clarifying the limits, as well as the purposes, of secrecy.
And Obama’s efforts did indeed make some headway. As Steven Aftergood, former director of the Federation of American Scientists, concluded, “The Obama administration broke down longstanding barriers to public access and opened up previously inaccessible records of enormous importance and value.” Among other things, Aftergood reported, Obama “declassified the current size of the U.S. nuclear arms arsenal for the first time ever,” as well as thousands of the president’s daily briefs, and established a National Declassification Center.
Still, in the end, the progress proved disappointing. As Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan put it, the Obama administration’s record on transparency was among “the most secretive” in our history. She also castigated the president’s team for “setting new records for stonewalling or rejecting Freedom of Information Requests.” As an Associated Press analysis of federal data verified, the Obama administration did indeed set records in some years when it came to not granting those FOIA requests.
Executive distaste for sharing information is certainly nothing new and has often been linked, as during the war on terror, to misrepresentations, misdeeds, and outright deceit. After all, half a century ago, the administration of President Richard Nixon (of Watergate fame) defended the right to withhold information from the public as an effective way of covering up the American role in Vietnam. Those withheld materials, eventually released by the New York Times, showed that, over the course of four administrations, the national security state had misled the public about what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam, including hiding the secret bombing of neighboring Cambodia and Laos.
Still, let’s recognize what Donald Trump has, in fact, done. Though no longer president, he’s now taken the withholding of government information well beyond the borders of the government itself and deep into his private realm. In doing so, he’s set a dangerous precedent, one that brought the FBI to his doorstep (after months of attempts to access the documents in less intrusive ways). The challenge now is to address not just Trump’s clumsy efforts to unilaterally privatize a government practice, but the systemic overreach officials have relied on for decades to withhold staggering amounts of information from the public.
The Biden administration is alert to this issue. Notably, President Biden reversed several of Trump’s classification decisions, including his policy of not reporting the number of American nuclear weapons. More systematically, the National Security Council recently launched an effort aimed at revising the nation’s unwieldy classification system, while Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has stated her intention to review the excessive classification of government documents.
In a 2022 letter to Congress, Haines pointed to the downside of a government that refuses to share information. “It is my view,” she wrote, “that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner, be that sharing with our intelligence partners, our oversight bodies, or, when appropriate, with the general public.”
True to her word, in the three months following that statement of allegiance to transparency, Haines has released a steady flow of material on controversial topics, including unclassified reports on everything from the origins of Covid to climate change to an assessment of the “Saudi government’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Still, despite such efforts, the powers that be are arguably being hoisted on their own petard. After all, Donald Trump followed in the wake of his predecessors in sanctioning expansive secrecy, then made it a be-all and end-all of his presidency, and now claims that it’s part of his rights as a former president and private citizen. As the head of a political movement, now out of office, he’s done the once unthinkable by claiming that the veil of secrecy, the right to decide what should be known and who should know it, is his in perpetuity.
The horror of his claim to untethered secret authority — no wonder some of his MAGA followers refer to him as their “god-emperor” — violates the very idea that a democracy is a pact between individual citizens and elected officials. The valid response to the holding of documents at Mar-a-Lago shouldn’t just be reclaiming them for the public record or even the clear demarcation of the law as it applies to a private citizen as opposed to a president (though both are essential). What’s needed is a full-throated demand that policies of secrecy, allowed to expand exponentially in this century without accountability or transparency, are destructive of democracy and should be ended.
Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author most recently of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco conducted research for this article.