Daily Camera (Boulder)

Lessons from the document scandal

For a certain segment of America, “Olly Olly oxen free” was the childhood shout for “all’s safe” in neighborho­od games, such as hide-and-seek, kick the can, or capture the flag.


Today, that same call would be appropriat­e for all those who squirreled away a classified document or two. Former presidents, former and current vice presidents — all of them, even the children of those elected to the nation’s highest offices, should have the chance to clean out their closets, basements, and file cabinets to come clean.

Perhaps document control deteriorat­ed in the last two or three presidenti­al terms, but there are a lot of former White House inhabitant­s alive and kicking, and in turn the potential for a lot of exposure.

The reality is that the U.S. government doesn’t track the existence of every classified document created by officials, according to the New York Times.

Are there documents boxed up at the late George H.W. Bush’s Kennebunkp­ort complex? Are there secrets mistakenly stored in some Habitat for Humanity project former President Jimmy Carter worked on? Are there secrets from 9/11 and War on Terror in binders collecting dust at the younger Bush’s ranch outside of Waco. And Bill Clinton?

This scandal has caught up with two former vice presidents. It forces the tough question:

Who else has docs? There’s Dick Cheney, who has been quiet during the daily drip of revelation­s. Does Al Gore have his own set of climate-related “Top Secret” docs hanging out at his Rancho Mirage complex in California? Or Dan Quayle, the senior Bush’s VP, who is alive and well in Arizona?

Here’s the reality: America now knows the problem of illegal classified document retention is widespread. But it’s essential to take the politics out of this scandal and look to possible solutions. Here’s how and why:

A period of amnesty — a fixed number of weeks or months, not years — would give those with any classified documents a chance to come forward.

First off, establish a presidenti­al commission, a nonpartisa­n group of profession­als in government, national security, National Archives and academia, with select functions and goals. Why not a legislativ­e committee? Too much potential to go off the rails with bipartisan bickering and grandstand­ing.

The focus would be not only to examine what happened with Docu-gate and report on the damage done, but its real gift to America would be “Secure Transition,” a plan to make sure the movers don’t pack up the wrong files when moving day at 1600 Pennsylvan­ia Ave. arrives every four or eight years.

With the assistance of its own selection of the NSC, FBI and Justice Department personnel, one arm of the commission would tackle the amnesty phase. Investigat­ors would quietly interview, debrief and set conditions for those coming forward. The extent of the task, and duration, would be determined by the number of those coming clean.

Some of the classified documents (we’ll acknowledg­e the possibilit­y) were taken innocently and by mistake. Others, probably not. Except for those “oops” files, all the classified material found outside of secure storage was taken for a reason: As a memento, a keepsake, or something else.

America needs to see an accounting of the documents found so far, and of any hereafter. Are they files of foreign or domestic interest, market-shaking policies, or advances in medicine, science and space that could be turned into a tidy profit for those in the know? The commission would then prepare a summary — a catalog — of the violations — detailed within reason, that gives the American people an overview of the types of classified documents, along with possible intent for retention and subsequent disseminat­ion of top secrets.

An official report, with such accounting, could go a long way in rebuilding public trust in government. We don’t suggest airing of the particular­s of national security matters, but simply public summaries that would give the nation an understand­ing of what has been happening with the nation’s top secrets.

The end product of the commission would, of course, be steps, tools and changes to help prevent this from happening again.

In the long term, an overhaul in how top officials handle top secrets is needed, but the focus must first be on promoting best-practices for keeping classified documents secure during a changeover in administra­tions.

The “Secure Transition­s” exercise, the airing of the problems and solutions, does one other important thing: Together they all forever remind those serving, or those considerin­g doing so, the need to be vigilant in keeping America’s secrets safe.

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