We have secret societies, secret handshakes, secret formulas, and secret ingredients that have survived efforts to disclose them over the course of decades, but apparently we have few national security secrets that can make it beyond the length of the administration that tried to conceal them from prying eyes, foreign or domestic. Documents marked Top Secret find their way into the home offices, storage bins, closets, and garages of our most senior elected officials. When asked how this happened, they inevitably point to subordinates who packed the documents inadvertently or simply claim ignorance. This is worrisome and inexplicable. 

The local library can keep track of thousands of printed materials that flow in and out of their facilities every month, and none of those documents are in any way sensitive. How is it that documents affecting national security and potentially revealing sources of intelligence information are handled so casually? If our elected officials do not take national security seriously enough to keep top secret documents secure, should they be allowed take them out of the White House or Pentagon or other venues whence they came?  If they cannot be trusted to keep track of these documents, can they be trusted to keep our country’s secrets? Should they be allowed to run for public office after their negligence has been established?

America, unfortunately, has a long history of mismanaging sensitive information. When the ever-wise Benjamin Franklin was advised that his assistants while he lived in France might be spies for the British, he acknowledged the possibility and designed his correspondence with the French government to convey more disinformation than information. His colleagues in America and France displayed considerably less insight and cunning and allowed for information to leak from the United States to its adversaries with regularity.  Even the astute George Washington considered Benedict Arnold above suspicion until he was presented with documents passed from Arnold to the British agent, Major John Andre.   

The gravest breach of confidentiality was during the Manhattan Project, the World War II atomic bomb development. The senior military officer in charge of the project, Leslie Groves, was told that a British official named Klaus Fuchs would be assigned to the project and should be kept informed regarding all developments on a daily basis. Klaus Fuchs’s background and sympathies were not seriously investigated by the British, but the Americans were assured he was not a security risk. In fact he was a Soviet agent who supplied detailed information to the Kremlin regarding American efforts and findings. Literally within days of each breakthrough by the American team at Los Alamos, Soviet scientists working on developing an atomic bomb had the results of the American efforts in hand. 

Ironically, the United States has been remarkably successful in concealing sensitive information from its own citizens. The Warren Commission investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination is one of the more obvious instances of revelation turning into obfuscation. That Lee Harvey Oswald was the only gunman and that he was operating as a lone wolf without any government (e.g., Cuba, Soviet Union, etc) assistance has remained unresolved in large part because of mishandling of evidence on the day of the shooting and during the days after the murder. A routine medical assessment of the dead President was obstructed by competing Federal agencies whose minions crowded into the examination room where the President’s body was taken. X-rays, tissue samples, autopsy photos and other informative materials were confiscated by agents at the scene. Some of the health professionals involved in the initial assessments of the body claimed that their notes were removed, never to resurface, and that x-rays and tissue samples collected from the President were replaced by materials from unrelated individuals. What the Warren Commission established was that much of the forensic material collected on the day of the shooting was unavailable. The conclusion that Oswald acted alone and independently was expedient but highly improbable.

An obvious source of leaks from our government involves individuals indifferent to the sensitivity of the material to which they are privy. In recent years a Vice President disclosed to the press the identity of the manager of a top secret operation after he was annoyed by an “op-ed” written by her husband in a national newspaper. Despite destroying the effectiveness of the secret operation and endangering all of the agents involved in the program, the Vice President dismissed criticism of the leak he had enabled by claiming that his position allowed him to declassify information and documents at his discretion. This was patently false, but that claim served as a precedent for future mis-handlings of secret information.

That the government should not conceal information of interest to the general public that does not interfere with the effective operation of the government has been established by the courts. That individuals disclosing that information should not be penalized has also been tested and accepted. On the contrary, that elected or appointed officials can retain indefinitely, misplace, or conceal their possession of top secret information and documents is incompatible with effective governance. Our politicians have an obligation to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. The first step in fulfilling that obligation is recognizing that they are being trusted with materials that affect the survival of our democracy and of their fellow citizens. If they do not have the maturity and intellect necessary to properly handle our nation’s most sensitive information, they should step aside.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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