May 19, 2024

everyone do it

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Does everybody do it?
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift         
          WASHINGTON — The revelation that Vice President Mike Pence had classified documents in his home in Indiana rocketed through the political world on Tuesday, opening the floodgates to potentially more top officials having to step forward and admit wrongdoing.
          Government experts said the mishandling of secret documents goes back to at least President Jimmy Carter returning documents found in his home in Plains, Georgia.
          The numbers are staggering. Some 50 million classified documents are generated each year, and some 4 million people have security clearances giving them access to secret information. Controls vary. The controls in the U.S. Senate are stringent and even accidental mishandling of classified documents can derail a career or result in jail time.
          But those internal safeguards are not always in place. The Pence documents coming on the heels of what we know about President Joe Biden increases the pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland. In the name of fairness, he could now feel obligated to name a special counsel to investigate Pence even though there is no evidence to suggest the former vice president committed a crime.
          It also becomes harder, if not impossible for Garland to prosecute Trump on mishandling classified documents when half the country will view it as a travesty since Biden and now Pence in their eyes did the same thing.
          For those keeping score, Trump knowingly took documents that belonged to the government and then refused to give them back, which is obstruction with malign intent, a crime.
          The Trump camp may be celebrating today, but if Garland backs away from prosecuting Trump on classified documents, he will have more incentive to hold the former president accountable for a more serious crime, his role in inciting the 1/6 insurrection and perpetrating a coup by having Congress hold up the certification of the 2020 election.
          Pence being implicated in the story that has sidelined the Biden administration for weeks underscores the complexity of the situation. How many other officials are knowingly or unknowingly harboring secret materials?
          Pence’s explanation is that the two boxes found in his home with classified markings were inadvertently stored there, the result of staff and/or military aides mishandling or commingling documents with no malign intent when he left the White House in January 2021. He was not aware they were there until his lawyer discovered them earlier this month.
          Biden said he had no knowledge of the 20 classified documents found in a workplace he used after leaving the White House, and in his home in Delaware. Classified documents, some dating back to his service in the Senate, were wrongly transferred when he left the Senate for the White House in 2009, and when he re-entered private life in 2017.
          Trump likes to say, “everybody does it,” and he may have a point, albeit exaggerated.
          The surprise finding of documents in Biden’s possession and now Pence’s possession suggests this is a bigger problem than a few innocent mistakes. It is now up to Biden to establish a procedure where government can get a handle on a classifying process that has gotten way out of hand in sheer numbers and bureaucracy.
          It's hard to say which is more chilling, that these top officials held onto these documents in the first place, and that except for Trump’s cool keepsakes, nobody missed them or even noticed they were gone until private lawyers out of an abundance of caution took a look.
          See Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2023 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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