Secretariat is big news thanks to Donald Trump. 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. Donald Trump’s election to the Oval Office was a clear indication that Trump would continue to withhold information in alarmingly wide-ranging ways.
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.
These officials, for example, 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. Later, it destroyed the tapesThese interrogations were made public, erasing evidence of the agents’ actions. In a similar secretive manner, the President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (USA) to create a vast and complex warrantless program. surveillanceAmericans and other Americans.
This was the launch of an era that emphasized secrecy. No wonder Bush earned the moniker of the “secrecy president.” Only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, for instance, he put in place strict guidelinesHe also gave details about who could brief Congress in classified matters and established new, lower standards of transparency. He even signed 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. His administration introduced new regulations in parallel. regulationsThere are restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) information being released.
Also, President Obama withheld information regarding war-on-terror. His administration covered up the use of armed drones for targeting and killing suspected terrorists (and civilians), in Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. Omitted official reports reliableData on who was killed, where they took place or the number 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.”
Beyond the war-on terror context, the government default mechanism for secrecy is the claim to secrecy. The number of classified documents rose to unimaginable heights over the years. According to the National Archives, in 2012, documents with classified markings — including “top secret,” “secret,” and “confidential” — reached a staggering 95 million. Even though the total numbers were higher than expected, declined by 2017Alarmingly, the extent of government classification 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. He took the war-on terror behavior patterns of his predecessors and expanded the information vacuum to include the purely personal and political realms. He began by refused to testifyMueller investigation into the 2016 presidential elections. A personal note: he also filed suitto keep his tax records from Congress.
Trump actually transformed the act of withholding information during his tenure. Instead of secrecy through classification, Trump devised a strategy to prevent documents and records from ever being created.
Trump is now three months into his presidency announcedThe White House announced that it would stop disclosing its visitor logs due to the perceived risk to national security and presidential privacy. Not only did he hide the names of the people he met with, but certain high-level meetings were not recorded so that his cabinet members and the public would never know anything about them.
John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, and others are examples of this. attestedIt was in meetingsTrump and Russian President Vladimir Putin even forbade note-taking. He attended at least five of these meetings during his first two years as president. consistently excludedWhite House officials and State Department members. He even attended a meeting with the State Department officials at least once. confiscatedNotes his interpreter made to ensure that there would not be a record.
Trump also banned Congress from having access to information. The memos were written by lawyers in the Department of Justice (DOJ), which outlined policies to prevent Congress from requesting information. They were based on Annie Owens’s memos. described as “a policy that approached outright refusal” to share information. The Trump administration was also lenient or dismissive in producing the required reports on national security issues. Notable is also the reverse of transparency policies, as in decision to reverse an Obama era policyto make public the number nuclear weapons the U.S. had.
But don’t just blame Donald Trump. Among the most recent examples of erasing evidence, it’s become clear that the Secret Service deletedThe text messages sent by its agents about the president between the previous day and the day of insurrection on January 6th. The phone records of several top Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials also were found. wipedIn accordance with the directives set out early in Trump’s presidency, they were made clean when they left office. The phone records of top Department of Defense officials and Department of Homeland Security officials were also destroyed. This means that recent reports about Trump’s behavior have been thrown out. 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 of Secrecy?
Although there were attempts to reverse the trend before Trump arrived, they proved ineffective. Barack Obama, who arrived at the White House in January 2009, acknowledged the damage 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 one year later, he issued a second executive order that set out a series aimed at broadening information-sharing parameters. The order tightened guidelines for classification and opened up more options 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.
Nevertheless, the progress was disappointing in the end. As Washington PostColumnist 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 analysisVerified federal data confirms that the Obama administration set records over several years in refusing to grant FOIA requests.
It is not a new phenomenon for executives to be disinterested in sharing information. This has been shown to be linked, as was the case during the war against terror, with misrepresentations, misdeeds and outright deceit. Half a century ago, there was the administrationNixon, the Watergate-famous President, defended the right of withholding information from the public as a way to cover up America’s role in Vietnam. Those who withheld information materialsEventually released by the New York TimesThe report, which was published by, showed that the U.S. national security state had misled people about what it was doing in Vietnam over the course of four administrations. This included hiding the secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia.
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.
This is a matter that the Biden administration is aware of. Notably, President Biden reversed several of Trump’s classification decisions, including his policy of not reporting the number of American nuclear weapons. The National Security Council is more systematic. 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.
2022 letterHaines, who was addressing Congress, highlighted the downsides of a government refusing information sharing. “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.”
Haines has kept her word. She released material on controversial topics in the three-months following her pledge of allegiance. reportsEverything from the origins of CovidTo climate changeTo an assessment of the “Saudi government’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Despite such efforts, the powers are still being held accountable. 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.