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Secrecy Is for Losers

What Biden’s classified document scandal reveals about power in America

Jacob Siegel
January 19, 2023
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Secrecy—the first refuge of incompetents—must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society, for a fully informed public is the basis of self-government.
- From a 1960 report by the Committee on Government Operations, U.S. House of Representatives.

On Wednesday morning, Jamie Lee Curtis was trending on Twitter. Earlier in the week, the actress had posted a photo on Instagram showing off the handsome set of black Pollock chairs that furnish her office. It was not the chairs, however, that landed her on Twitter’s front page, but the photograph on the wall behind them. The Instagram photo has since been deleted, after thousands of amateur investigators online tweeted at Curtis to ask why there was a photo of a naked child stuffed into a suitcase hanging on her office wall.

Here was a clue pointing to Curtis’ involvement in the globalist pedophile ring known to dominate the political and cultural elite of the United States along with who knows how many other Western nations. This particular conspiracy theory, which has branches in Pizzagate and QAnon, has two great strengths. First, it can’t be disproved by contrary evidence. To take one example, the image on Curtis’ wall does not, in fact, show a child’s body crammed into a suitcase. The photo, taken by the artist Betsy Schneider, is of a young girl in a tub of water. Creepy it may be, but bad taste and ritualistic child sacrifice are not necessarily the same.

The conspiracy’s other source of strength is its basis in reality. Jeffrey Epstein really was enticing some of the world’s richest and most powerful people to a private island where he kept a harem that included underage girls trafficked into the sexual service of a global elite. Yet Epstein’s arrest, rather than dragging his horrible crimes out into the light of day, only deepened their mystery. For one thing, his well-timed suicide in a New York prison put an end to the chance that he might spill his secrets. But the secrecy remains as the FBI stonewalls requests to release files related to Epstein’s work as a Bureau source.

Why does any of this matter? Because the outrage over Jamie Lee Curtis’ wall art and the far larger scandal over President Biden’s improper handling of classified documents are both products of an enormous, opaque system of secrecy—so opaque we don’t know how enormous it is—that has captured American politics. The principle of democratic self-governance is obviously incompatible with that system, but so too is the sanity of individuals living inside of it. Americans who want to join in their country’s civic life now find that the main way to participate is by following the trail of clues leaked by official sources while trying to solve elaborate, rigged puzzles about the nature of reality. It’s no surprise the country is going nuts.

What were President Biden’s lawyers doing digging around in storage boxes a few days before the midterm elections last November? The official story—that they stumbled on secret documents at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement while they were “packing files”—is improbable on its face. Who sends high-level lawyers to pack boxes unless they’re worried about what’s going to turn up? Even if the initial files were discovered by accident, there is no plausible, non-political explanation for why the White House waited two months, until well after the midterm elections, to acknowledge the discovery. The one certainty so far is that the pertinent information necessary to form a reasonably informed judgment about the severity of the infraction is being withheld from the public. Rather than provide American citizens with a working knowledge of their own government, the White House and Justice Department drip half facts out to the public, in a method similar to water torture.

The Justice Department’s current calm and steady approach offers quite a contrast to what happened last August when the FBI raided former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound. The unprecedented use of a state security agency against a former president was justified by what was purported to be an urgent national security threat. And what was that threat? We still don’t know since the whole matter remains a secret. In The Washington Post, anonymous government sources claimed that the raid was triggered because Trump was holding on to documents containing nuclear secrets. Each individual component of the story—the anonymity of the sources, the unknown nature of the documents, the secrecy surrounding the timing of the raid—might appear weak on its own, but together they were mutually reinforcing and created the illusion that there was solid evidence of an imminent national security emergency. Even better, since the claims were secret, they couldn’t be refuted—an arrangement that granted the federal agencies impunity and allowed pundits’ imaginations to run wild devising the most grandiose possible justifications for the raid.

The evidence that the laws around state secrets mostly serve as a weapon of partisan warfare is clear in how they’re enforced. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department prosecuted more whistleblowers than under any other president in U.S. history. During the Trump administration, with the security bureaucracy feeling itself under threat, there were more leaks from high-profile officials—each of them a brazen violation of federal law, punishable under 18 U.S. Code 798, which prohibits the disclosure of classified information—than at any point in history. Secrecy and the arbitrary prosecution of its violations have become the cornerstones of political power.

As of 2019, 4.2 million people in the U.S. held security clearances. That’s not a specialized core of security professionals; it’s the population of Los Angeles.

More than two decades ago, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that “the Cold War has bequeathed to us a vast secrecy system that shows no signs of receding.” What’s more, he continued, “it has become our characteristic mode of governance in the executive branch.” Keep in mind, he wrote this before the vast expansions of the secrecy bureaucracy following 9/11. The United States now has more secrets than ever—far more than it can possibly keep track of or justify on national security grounds. As of 2019, 4.2 million people in the United States held security clearances. That’s not a specialized core of security professionals; it’s the population of Los Angeles. And while the clearance holders are now a class unto themselves, that’s nothing compared to the number of classified documents in existence. The government not only doesn’t know how many classified documents it has circulating but also has no way to find out, as NPR reported earlier this week, since there is no system for tracking all of them. Mark Bradley, director of the National Archives Information Security Oversight Office, acknowledged that his office has stopped trying to count the number of new secrets being created. “We can no longer keep our heads above the tsunami,” he wrote in a memo to the president this past summer.

The more reliant the press has become on secrets and leaks, the more sycophantish and naive its attitude toward the security agencies. Consider what happened with the 2018 memo published by then California Congressman Devin Nunes, which detailed how the FBI had relied on the fraudulent Steele dossier in obtaining its FISA warrants to spy on the Trump campaign. Nunes’ claims were correct and subsequently corroborated by multiple sources, including the 2019 Justice Department Inspector General report on the origins of the Russia-Trump investigation. But at the time the memo was released, the widespread attitude in the press was snide dismissal. As Matt Taibbi points out in a recent Twitter Files release, the efforts to “debunk” the memo mostly consisted of multiple journalists calling it a “joke” and using strikingly similar language to discredit it. Aside from being spectacularly wrong, the arrogant rejection was jarring because it was not rooted in any counterfactual evidence proving Nunes incorrect, but rather in a blind-faith acceptance of official secrets. Nunes had to be lying because people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Adam Schiff looked very confident when they attacked him while intimating knowledge of classified information. Or, according to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, because the FBI said so. But the classified information backing up the claims from Schiff and Feinstein didn’t exist. Hidden behind the veil of secrecy was not a trove of grave secrets that held in the balance the fate of our great democracy, but a howling nothing. They were bluffing a hand, counting on the press to fold. It worked.

In light of all that, it seems plausible, as some are now speculating, that the keepers of secrets in the U.S. security agencies have turned on Biden and are using the classified document scandal to kneecap him before the 2024 election. But as Lee Smith argues, the evidence available so far, limited as it is, suggests a cover-up more than a coup. Smith points to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s appointment of Robert Hur as the special counsel investigating Biden’s handling of the documents. Hur, writes Smith, “is a protégé of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general under Trump who reportedly offered to wear a wire to spy on the previous president.” In other words, despite being a Republican, Hur is connected to the apparatus of secrecy. If there is, in fact, a cover-up, Biden may not be its main beneficiary.

But a cover-up for what? Perhaps it’s related to the Justice Department’s efforts to “prevent disclosure of 400 pages of sensitive documents on Hunter and Jim Biden’s dealings with China, Russia and Ukraine—by pretending they don’t exist,” as the Daily Mail has reported. We’re back at the original question of what Biden’s lawyers were looking for in the first place. Try to understand what your own government is up to, and you wind up like a dog chasing its own tail. Or maybe just sniffing it.

Wherever the truth lies in the Biden case, it’s obvious that administrative secrecy is routinely used as a veto on democracy and the rule of law. The same opaque network of bureaucrats and security officials who still have not explained to the public why they raided Trump’s compound can’t be expected to play it straight now. Being transparent with the public might put them out of business.

Different forms of government can heighten certain human traits while inhibiting others. Democracy can enhance reason while taming faithfulness. Secrecy turns cunning into a virtue. It rewards plotters, schemers, and the lackeys they rely on.

“The concept of the ‘official secret’ is the specific invention of the bureaucracy,” wrote the sociologist Max Weber a century ago, “and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude.”

One begins to suspect that behind the bureaucrat’s fanaticism is the knowledge that the country simply doesn’t need him. If the whole structure crumbled tomorrow, America would be just fine.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.