The president’s almost exclusive authority over determining what constitutes national-security information and who can have access to it is unlike anything else in American politics: a form of power that is fully sovereign, with almost no effective checks or balances. No wonder it has proved so intoxicating. Donald Trump’s refusal to release the classified documents he held at Mar-a-Lago — even after being warned that he was breaking the law — is just an extreme case of this powerful addiction, one that Joe Biden, after serving as vice president, may have struggled with as well.
This is not a new problem. Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt (and sometimes even before) have tried to manage what Americans know about what presidents do. And almost every one has had the same message: They will be much more forthcoming than their predecessors. But then they go on to betray these promises.
Woodrow Wilson campaigned in 1912 on the proposition that “there ought to be no place where anything can be done that everybody does not know about.” But he presided over vast new systems for surveillance and censorship, and negotiated the Treaty of Versailles behind closed and guarded doors.
Franklin Roosevelt, like his distant cousin Teddy before him, was a master of public relations, and both Roosevelts made themselves unusually available for media appearances. But they also believed deeply in secrecy, and Franklin Roosevelt delighted in compartmentalizing “top secrets” even within his own administration. Harry Truman was a famous straight talker, yet even when he expanded his predecessor’s security classification system, he claimed it would make more rather than less information available. Dwight Eisenhower curtailed the number of agencies that could create secrets and eliminated the catchall “restricted” classification. His own Defense Department found these changes made little difference, and the problem of overclassification kept growing.
Not to be outdone in making himself available to journalists demanding more transparency, Lyndon Johnson famously lifted his shirt to show the scar across his belly from a gallbladder operation. But behind the scenes, he was contemptuous of the Freedom of Information Act and quietly sabotaged it.
Secrecy has a power all its own. It enables executive branch officials to classify and thereby conceal not just dangerous information that could threaten national security but also many things they simply prefer to hide from the public — that could include elite cynicism, managerial incompetence or military insubordination. This national secrecy complex would best be described as a dark state — much of it hidden from us, even decades after the fact, and used to cover up too many shameful things in our history, including illegal surveillance, radioactive experimentation on children and the elderly, and a whole series of undeclared wars.