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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 9, 2023

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What do you do when caught with top secret documents? Deflect:

[He] didn’t know the documents were there, and didn’t become aware they were there, until his personal lawyers informed the White House counsel’s office, one source familiar with the matter told CNN.

Of course, this time it’s Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. The President’s staff has handed over several documents, including TS//SCI, leftover from his time as VP. His personal attorneys found the documents on November 2nd while clearing out a closet in his former Penn Biden center office, immediately notified NARA, and handed off the hot potato the next day. Since then the DoJ has appointed an attorney to figure out who’s responsible for the illegally handled files. Other than that, most everyone involved has refused to comment unless they represent one of the parties in court.

Now for the obvious comparisons:

  • The type of documents seem similar to those kept in Mar-A-Lago, and were haphazardly filed in a similar manner

  • NARA didn’t know about (or request) the missing files

  • If Biden’s team is concealing more documents, they’re doing a much better job

  • The FBI is watching but not serving any warrants

  • Perhaps most importantly, the President is deflecting and denying rather than crying “witch hunt”

This leads, naturally, to two movies on one screen. Either the President is taking all the right actions after some staffer’s fuckup, or the security state is shamelessly giving him a slap on the wrist. What few outlets are writing on the subject fall into these two narratives. Democrats can’t help but compare the “scope and scale” of the violations, while Republicans emphasize the lack of door-kicking.

Neither stance addresses the real deciding factor of a smoking gun. This is going to be a Hillary situation. Like her infamous server, responsibility is diluted enough that no charges will be brought. (Note that I’ve made the same prediction about Mar-A-Lago.) Both narratives will try to spin epistemic uncertainty into iron-clad assurance, thus adding no value.

The only real conclusion is that you or I wouldn’t get off nearly so easily. If you’re going to store classified documents for your job, you’d better talk softly and hire a big staff.

As much as I love to see jackass politicians hoist by their own petard, all any of this helps me to conclude is that the laws and regulations surrounding information handling in the United States are some combination of (1) retarded, (2) routinely ignored, and/or (3) disconnected from reality.

Somewhere, maybe in the old subreddit, I read a wonderful post by someone describing various levels of precaution that were supposed to be taken in labs doing "gain of function" research or similar, and then contrasting those levels of precaution with the actual levels of precaution likely to be taken by people who become accustomed to the environment by working in it day in, day out: much less precaution than required.

I have many reasons to believe that something similar is true of classified documents. Maybe some bureaucrats at the NSA or something actually take all the Mission: Impossible precautions of changing passwords regularly, air-gapping crucial secrets, etc. but I am confident that few (if any) elected officials even know what the damn regulations are--never mind actually taking pains to follow them. This goes double for the executive, particularly since it is arguably the case that the President (and even perhaps some others) can essentially just decide to declassify stuff (I'm oversimplifying, here, but the office of the President really does arguably have practically plenary power over many things under the Constitution, and national security is one of them).

This is really why Hillary's servers were such an annoying sideshow. Yes, I think she was probably guilty of a federal crime, but it's the same federal crime you could very probably pin on half the elected officials in DC, if you were sufficiently motivated to do so. Trump appears to probably be guilty of the same crime, more or less, and now we have evidence that Biden, too, appears to have basically done the same thing. Now, show me some evidence that any of these people were selling state secrets or something, and we could have a more lively conversation. And maybe I should be more angry about this kind of malfeasance than I am. But if you write enough laws, eventually everyone is always guilty of something, and laws that require you to be careful just in case, even though bad things almost never actually happen as a result of noncompliance, are almost always the first ones people grow comfortable ignoring. I doubt there is anything nefarious going on with Biden's lax document handling--but I feel the same about Trump, and Clinton.

What I don't like is giving the bureaucracy (like the Justice Department) a free hand to interfere with elected politicians, or not, as they please, based on rules the bureaucracy is paid to learn and know and enforce, but which elected officials can only, apparently, correctly interpret with the help of whatever Court they ultimately have to face on the matter. I don't like Biden (or Trump, or Clinton, it turns out I kind of hate all politicians) and part of me wants to just not care that his feet might get put to the fire on this, at least a little. But mostly I am suspicious of the frequency with which (what are probably in all cases entirely predictably) "mishandled documents" is becoming everyone's favorite "gotcha!"

The Hilary email server thing is really a special case that usually isn't well explained...

She wanted a separate email system so:

  1. She and Huma could co-mingle Secretary of State business and Clinton Foundation business. Foreign governments were making requests about official business to the address, and getting donation requests for the Clinton Foundation from the same email address. There was a pretty strong subtext there.

  2. Keeping the emails off of government servers kept them out of FOIA requests.

Now what makes it a big scandal is that the bureaucrats in DC were helping her. She was powerful and popular in DC. No one else could have pulled it off.

The email server was discovered when Judicial Watch noticed that they weren't seeing any emails from Hilary's account in their FOIA requests about Benghazi.

The staff in charge of FOIA requests knew all about the separate email server and argued that those records weren't in their possession so they couldn't search them. But responding to the request with "no relevant records found" is dishonest given that they knew they should have had the records.

It came out that it wasn't secured properly and foreign intelligence services were likely reading classified emails there. That defeated the "what's the harm" excuse.

It's not the worst scandal that's ever happened, but it does stand out as unique. Hilary had been so powerful in DC for so long that she knew how to flout the rules. There really isn't anyone else who could have done something similar.

I agree that in general high level officials get sloppy with classified information and do things that an ultra aggressive DOJ could prosecute them for. It seems inevitable given the amount of sensitive information they deal with and the fact it's impossible to live in a SCIF.


The Hillary scandal is an order of magnitude worse than Trump/Biden because of the intent behind what she was doing. The purpose was to evade oversight both from the public and congress. And she systematically compromised national security for that purpose (and most likely corruption/graft).

The Hillary scandal is an order of magnitude worse than Trump/Biden because of the intent behind what she was doing. The purpose was to evade oversight both from the public and congress. And she systematically compromised national security for that purpose (and most likely corruption/graft).

Yes. She can't plead ignorance, because she took willful action to subvert the default way of doing things, when the easy ignorant path is to just accept the standard government email accounts which are already set-up for compliance with discovery regulations. Sort of like how putting classified documents in an envelope marked "Personal" (or stuffed in your socks, like Sandy Berger) shows intent to subvert.