A president who is willing to bend national policy to serve his self-interests, and who has little regard for the law, has powerful tools of concealment at his disposal. The events of the past two weeks are again putting on full display the ways that classification policy and information-security systems can be abused to conceal records of wrongdoing and to extend the life span of malfeasance before it’s discovered. And once again, a great deal rides on whether Congress can summon the will to serve as a check on the executive.
As the whistle-blower’s complaint suggests, the very features that make the classification system work can also be exploited by high-level officials who are willing to violate norms, or by staff members who are willing to break the law on their behalf. What better place to hide the bodies than a burying ground that’s off-limits to almost everyone in government—and where no one is likely to even try to break in?
EO 13526 makes clear that classification can never be used as the basis for concealing evidence of wrongdoing or embarrassing information. In this case, document markings—the actual classification labels—weren’t changed. But there has been a de facto increase in classification, because the information is now held in a system that can be accessed only by a vanishingly small number of inner-circle White House officials.
In its draft report, the 1975 House Intelligence Committee wrote that:
The key to exercising oversight is knowledge.
The Select Committee’s most important work may well have been its … testing perhaps for the first time what happens when Congress unilaterally decides what it wants to know and how it wants to know it.
Congress is faced squarely with that choice once again. How—and how hard—it chooses to pursue the information it’s entitled to may determine the future of Trump’s presidency, and of Congress’s future ability to oversee the executive branch.