Like The 39 Steps or The Loyal 47 Ronin, The 22 “Top Secret” Email Messages has a mythic quality to it. As you may have heard if you are a normal person, and definitely heard if you are a Fox News or hate radio devotee, the government declared 22 Clinton email messages “top secret.” And so withheld them from release. Almost immediately, the Clinton campaign demanded that the email messages be released. Why would they do that? Most people are like Max Fisher at Vox who thinks that it is because the Clinton campaign wants the world to see that there is nothing top secret about them.
This is definitely the reason. Good God! I would be shocked if even 0.01% of classified documents deserve to be. When very old documents are finally declassified, they are almost always the most banal things. When they are sexy, it is because they embarrassed someone, not because they would have led to the fall of our empire. Creating “top secret” documents is a way for bureaucrats to feel like they are special. The fact that their jobs are usually pretty boring probably doesn’t help matters. Everyone likes to feel like they are an insider, and what better way than to mark banal nonsense as “top secret”?
One thing I remember very fondly from the 1990s was all of the work that the Clinton administration did declassifying documents. It was amazing and refreshing. I’ve always hated the over-classification of stuff. It’s anti-democratic. But the icing on the cake of what Clinton had done was that after George W Bush was appointed president, Dick Cheney began his own program of re-classifying what Clinton had declassified. It showed that there really are two kinds of people in the world: normal and authoritarian jerks. I mean, that’s such a Stalinist move! Sure, the information has been made public, but now I’m going to stop anyone from talking about it!
Paul Krugman wrote a really good blog post about his own experience with classified documents. Here is the heart of the matter which not only goes along with everything I know about classified documents but is also pretty funny:
But the reason I kept forgetting to lock the things up was that none of them — literally not one, during a whole year — contained anything actually sensitive. There was nothing in any of them you couldn’t have read in newspapers, or figured out for yourself given public information.
I’m not a good prognosticator, but I’ll tell you how I think this is going to go: no one who doesn’t already care will care. The truth is that the Clinton campaign is playing this exactly right. By immediately demanding the documents’ release, they are signaling that there is nothing to see. And the vast majority of people already know that our classification system, very much including “top secret,” is a joke.
There’s another aspect to it too. People might have their questions about Hillary Clinton. Is she too secretive? Is she a political opportunist? (As if all politicians aren’t both.) But no one thinks that she is incompetent or a traitor. What’s more, it is all so boring. But if it starts a discussion about how over-classified government documents have become, it will be a great thing.
I know one thing: Bernie Sanders won’t be using the “damn emails” as an issue.