During the call, according to a reconstructed transcript later released by the White House, Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate discredited allegations surrounding Joe Biden and his elder son’s work in Ukraine. This came as Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid. According to the whistle-blower complaint that brought the contents of the call to light, about a dozen U.S. officials were listening in on the phone conversation. (On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed reports that he was one of them.) But the call took place behind a wall of government secrecy. The notes and transcripts from it, as is common practice with calls between the president and foreign leaders, were classified. Then, according to the complaint, White House officials, allegedly wise to the troubling nature of Trump’s remarks, moved the record of the call to a special computer system typically reserved for military and intelligence matters so sensitive that they require a code word, to prevent it from leaking.
Revealing the scandal required the whistle-blower—reportedly a member of the CIA who was detailed to the White House—to go through a bureaucratic process that was vulnerable to interference by the executive branch.
This series of events might suggest that the system worked: In the end, the details of the call became public. But it also underlines the risk of the same predisposition toward secrecy that leads to overclassification. U.S. officials are used to having their dealings walled off from scrutiny—and to making sure that classified information doesn’t see the light of day.
The problem of overclassification—and of a fetishization of secrecy more generally—spans administrations. While Trump’s rants against leakers are well known, the Obama administration oversaw a much quieter crackdown on them, prosecuting a record number.
A handful of former intelligence and national-security officials disagreed with the idea that overclassification is all that relevant to the scandal surrounding Trump and Ukraine, saying that the practice normally has more innocuous motives than shielding scandals.
“Classification is more an art than a science,” one told me. “Information is both frequently overclassified and underclassified. This happens because of bureaucratic convenience, rather than maliciousness.”
As one example, this person noted that emails between U.S. officials might typically be sent on a classified system even when the messages contain only mundane details, because switching back and forth between the classified and nonclassified systems can be cumbersome, and it’s better to be safe.
The problem with the alleged use of the code-word server to hide the call’s transcript, this person pointed out, speaking anonymously because of the issue’s sensitivity, is the opposite. The code-word server is inconvenient to use and requires logging in to special computers. “When you’re talking about accessing the code-word server, you’re actually disincentivized. From secret to top secret, or from top secret to top-secret compartmentalized information, it’s generally a rule that you’ll just cover your ass and use the highest classification available. Until you get to this level.”
Sina Beaghley, a former director for intelligence and information security on the National Security Council, said that overclassification results not from a culture of secrecy within the government, but more often from “a culture of ensuring that you maintain protection of secrets that are supposed to be protected. You’re not penalized for overclassification, but you are penalized for underclassification.”
Beaghley, now associate director of the cyber- and intelligence-policy center at the Rand Corporation, co-authored a recent report on reforming the classification system. Among the fixes she recommends are better training within the U.S. government on how to determine and handle classified information, better clarity and distribution of the guidance on what should and shouldn’t be classified, and more consistent efforts related to transparency and declassification when national-security secrets no longer require protection. But she stressed that in general, government officials classify information not because it’s embarrassing, but “because of the level of potential damage to national security that could result if that information is divulged.”
The argument over classification is a long-standing one among U.S. officials who believe the system is generally in good faith and those arguing for greater transparency.
Loch K. Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia and one of America’s foremost scholars on intelligence, listed what he described as “genuine secrets”—things such as weapons specifications, identities of CIA agents, and surveillance capabilities. “Having said that, many classified documents—even ‘secret’ and ‘top secret’—are often improperly elevated to that level for no good reason, other than to catch the attention of readers higher up in the food chain or, sometimes, to cover up mistakes by making information about them hard to acquire,” Johnson told me in an email. “Democracy depends on openness in government activities, insofar as possible.”