Good morning Viet…er, I mean howdy yall! This is your Tired Midnight Blogger (what blogs at Midnight), filling the internet with more words arranged in marginally coherent sentences. Like everyone else out there, I’m trying to make sense of this crazy world, and I have a shade of over fifty followers reading to my wild rants of rage against a world I never made. (Or maybe that was Howard the Duck).
My latest pointless skirmish with reality has been to grapple with the reports about Trump and Mar-A-Lago. I haven’t discussed much what has actually been going on there, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and MOUSE have better resources for investigating, and more importantly, they will do you the service of not merely reporting on the subject (if you are lucky, honestly I don’t doubt half the time they are actually obfuscating, but I digress), they will also insult your intelligence by doing your thinking for you. So, while my thinking is likely half-baked, let’s dive into the next topic of the series: Are there other folks (whether President, Congressmen, or Cabinet officials) who have done similar things, and what were the consequences (if any) for these people?
Chip: Shall we begin?
Dale: Let’s shall!
Espionage is as American as apple pie. Washington may or may not have been a masterful general, but he was wise in his delegation of building up spy rings and made masterful use of the intelligence he gained. “In November 1778, George Washington charged Major Benjamin Tallmadge with creating a spy ring in New York City, the site of British headquarters. Tallmadge led the creation of the Culper Spy Ring, recruiting friends to work as his informants.” He also had a double agent working for him, one of the unsung black heroes of the Revolution. James Armistead Lafayette gained intelligence for Washington on the traitor Benedict Arnold and ultimately gathered key information on Lord Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown. The British defeat at Yorktown is often accounted for as the American (and French, don’t forget them) victory that won the war.
I don’t mean for this post to be a history of espionage. Specifically, I want to learn if it is common in our history for leadership to be careless with key defense information. This post (while likely I will make some snarky comments, I am, after all, a Tired Blogger) is not intended to either condemn or exonerate Trump. I’m trying to wrap my head around the context since we keep being told that these are things unparalleled in American history, and I want to do my own digging to see if that is true and share my findings with you folks.
The first instance of bungling American intelligence that I can find goes back to the very Revolution I just discussed. The Hutchinson Papers were letters written by Massachusetts Colonial Governor Hutchinson. “
Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts and a loyalist, wrote a series of private letters criticizing Colonial leaders and calling for a stronger British military presence in Boston. In December of that year, a political opponent of Hutchinson leaked the letters to Benjamin Franklin, who was living in England at the time. Franklin passed the letters on to some radical friends in the Colonies, requesting they be kept confidential. But the Boston Gazette published the letters in June 1773, spurring public disgust for Hutchinson, who fled to England.
“Franklin’s actual intent in sharing the letters was to dissipate resentment of the British by shifting the blame to Hutchinson. But after the incident, Franklin was sent back to America, where he would help found the fledgling United States.” https://www.livescience.com/37357-us-intelligence-leaks.html
Uncle Ben was no master spy, he shared information with people he thought he could trust. In a sense he was wrong, but serendipitously this ended up helping our nation. Before this mistake, Franklin was still loyal to the crown. He loved England. He was actually living in London at the time. After the papers were published back in the colonies, the Revolutionary fires that had been smoldering took flame, and the English government was furious with Franklin. They turned on him, after this snafu, and let him know the true colors of tyranny.
“The letters were correspondence of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver with English authorities. In these letters Hutchinson explained the revolts in the colony against taxes and recommended that colonial government should be made independent from provincial assemblies and the gradual reduction “by degrees” of English liberties. He also urged to send more troops to keep rebels under control advocating repressive measures against agitators in the colonies.
“Understanding the nature of these letters, Franklin sent them to Samuel Adams who was the head of the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence. Franklin authorized the letters to be shown to members of the Committee but not copied or published.
“Massachusetts Speaker Thomas Cushing wrote a letter to Franklin asking if he could ease the restriction of its circulation. Because of its inflammatory nature, Cushin presented the content of the letters before the Massachusetts House on June 2nd, 1773. The House concluded that Hutchinson intended to overthrow the constitution and decided to appoint a committee to petition the crown for Hutchinson’s and Oliver’s removal. Despite Franklin’s wishes and because of public interest the letters were published in the Boston Gazette in June 1773 causing political and civil revolt in the city.”
On January 29, 1774, “Franklin appeared before the Privy Council supposedly to hear if the British government would approve a petition by Massachusetts to replace the current governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver.”
But in the shifty backstabbing ways bullies have, Franklin was being set up for a fall. “We’re just here to see how your stores look” doesn’t take long to turn into “This just screams out dumbass.” And alas, not kidding.
The next quote is from https://www.amphilsoc.org/blog/how-alexander-wedderburn-cost-england-america
“Franklin appeared in the Cockpit, so named because cock fights occurred there during the reign of Henry VIII. Alexander Wedderburn, solicitor general, spoke for the government. Wedderburn was a competent, ambitious Scot who could bend with the political winds in the service of his king.”
“The meeting was well-attended by distinguished people, mostly sympathetic to the government’s position. Franklin had some distinguished supporters of his own, including Edmund Burke and Joseph Priestley.
“Wedderburn spoke for over an hour, not about the merits of the petition but about the letters, Massachusetts, and Franklin’s character. “Private correspondence has hitherto been held sacred,” he bellowed. Franklin “has forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.” “He will henceforth call it a libel to be called a man of letters,” a pun on Franklin’s position as postmaster. Wedderburn declared, with a sly reference to Franklin’s experiments with electricity, that he “stands in the light of the first mover and prime conductor of this whole contrivance against his Majesty’s two Governors” and accused Franklin and the radical coterie in Massachusetts of spreading sedition.
“Through it all, Franklin stood still, showing no emotion, “conspicuously erect, without the smallest movement of any part of his body,” his unchanging expression tranquil and placid. His dignity and forbearance made him the strongest presence in a room full of powerful men.
“After the diatribe, Wedderburn declared that he was ready to examine the witness, Franklin replied that he did not choose to be examined. After the chamber was cleared of spectators, the Privy Council turned down the petition.
“The attack on Franklin was almost too much for him to bear. But then he learned the next day that he had been removed as postmaster…His character had been attacked, his work for conciliation ignored, his contributions to efficient government in the colonies dismissed. From then on, Franklin would work for American independence.”
“During the hearing and in front of the Privy Council, Franklin was accused by British Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn of illegally obtaining the letters to incite rebellion in the colonies. He was accused of being a thief and of dishonor.” http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/hutchinson-affair/#:~:text=During%20the%20hearing%20and%20in,a%20thief%20and%20of%20dishonor.
Like Jesus before Pilate, Uncle Ben remained silent through the accusations. Unlike Jesus, my uncle did NOT turn the other cheek. He sailed back home to Philadelphia and became a patriot bent on Freedom from British tyranny.
I know I’ve gone into a lot of detail here, but I’ve done it because I think there are lessons to be learned. On one hand, this was information Franklin distributed to people he felt needed to know, whereas Trump (as far as I know) simply had the information in his basement at Mar-A-Lago. And Trump is an ex-President, whereas at the time Franklin was a Colonial Postmaster for Britain and a de-facto Ambassador of sorts between the colonies he loved and the kingdom he loved. Trump has been impeached twice, and Franklin suffered humiliation and demotion from a kangaroo court (not even a trial of his peers, as there was no true jury). Trump is not yet on trial for mishandling the documents when he does…I honestly have no idea how espionage cases are tried. I know Edward Snowden has requested a jury trial and has been denied. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/snowden-espionage-civil-disobedience/ So…Trump might not be tried by a jury of his peers? Then who does try him? And can we trust that tribunal to be any fairer than the one that persecuted Ben Franklin? I have no dog in this fight, I don’t like Trump and did not vote for him in the last election, but I can’t help but see that this commotion, right or wrong, is only making his following love him more. His followers at the base are largely those who have felt oppressed for the last thirty years. They feel the investigation to be nothing short of a raid on one of their own. As the Colonists did, right or wrong, in ’74.
Are there any more recent examples? Possibly Uncle Ben’s snafu was too long ago to matter to most of my readers.
Let’s jump ahead to my lifetime. The President when I was born was Richard Milhouse Nixon. Until Trump was elected, I think it was likely that Nixon was the most hated President. He is also one of the big reasons why Trump is finding himself in trouble.
Two major intelligence leakages happened in the early seventies. One was the leak of the Pentagon Papers, and the other was Watergate.
According to http://www.census.gov the median age of a US citizen is 38.2. So the average citizen has no memory of the Vietnam War. It tore our nation apart, and that chasm has never really healed. A lot of people blame the liberal media and the hippy movement for the decline of the nation’s trust in the government, and I won’t say there is no truth to such arguments. But I believe the biggest factor in the government losing our trust is simple.
They lied to us.
The purpose of this post is not to dig deep into history, still less the history of the Vietnam War. (Though I spent a bit of time on Uncle Ben. He’s my hero though, so forgive me if I wanted to spend some time with him. Nixon on the other hand…) But the American loss of trust in the government which began in the fifties with the Korean War went full tilt in the late sixties, and while it recovered a little in the eighties and nineties, the new(ish) century is proving to be as chock full of lies as any other.
The Pentagon Papers were a classified history of American involvement in Indochina from the end of WW II to the late sixties. According to Britannica.com, “They were turned over (without authorization) to The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies.” Originally Ellsberg was very enthusiastic about what America was doing in the region, but as time went on he had more and more compunction about our activities there. Finally, he leaked this secret history to the press, and all hell broke loose.
The American people learned from these papers that they had been lied to for twenty-five years, and it seemed as though the hippies who had said the government was lying to us were not wrong.
“On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on the study, which was classified as “top secret” by the federal government. After the third daily installment appeared in the Times, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained in U.S. District Court a temporary restraining order against further publication of the classified material, contending that further public dissemination of the material would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to U.S. national defense interests.
“The Times—joined by The Washington Post, which also was in possession of the documents—fought the order through the courts for the next 15 days, during which time publication of the series was suspended. On June 30, 1971, in what is regarded as one of the most significant prior-restraint cases in history, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6–3 decision freed the newspapers to resume publishing the material. The court held that the government had failed to justify restraint of publication.”
“Meanwhile, Daniel Ellsberg, who had originally helped research and write the Pentagon Papers, (and who was one of the oft-cited analysts who had written a seminal work on Game Theory and Economics called Risk, Ambiguity, and Decision) was indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. Do you remember that one…? I posted about it Monday…if you have forgotten or haven’t read it (for shame!) I’ll post it here.
Another article from Britannica.com tells how this scandal nearly destroyed Ellsberg, but instead led to the end of the Nixon Presidency:
“Ellsberg was indicted under the Espionage Act, and the charges leveled against him could have resulted in up to 115 years in prison. The trial against Ellsberg, which began in January 1973, lasted four months and concluded with the dismissal of all charges after evidence of gross governmental misconduct came to light. John D. Ehrlichman, an adviser to Pres. Richard M. Nixon had utilized a team of “plumbers”—so named for their ability to “repair leaks” and later made famous by their role in the Watergate break-in—to burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an unsuccessful effort to uncover embarrassing or harmful material. Cleared of wrongdoing, Ellsberg devoted the rest of his life to peace activism and academia.”
Since very few remember Watergate, I’ll give Cliff’s Notes version of that fiasco. I’ve already shared a bit about it tangentially, but both for fun and for reader illumination let’s dig a bit deeper.
As we’ve seen, Nixon suffered a major setback with the leaking of The Pentagon Papers. Frankly, the book made every President back to Truman look bad, but Nixon happened to hold the office then, and his hard-line conservative politics were easy for the liberal left wing to hate. He overreacted to the challenges thrown at him. His organization the Committee to Re-Elect the President (lovingly referred to as CREEP) was made up of…shall we say…unscrupulous folks. Some of these fellows broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Watergate. They stole documents and left bugs to spy on the opposition. They were evidently not professional spies, since the bugs failed to work. In desperation, they returned to repair their work. A security guard called the police, and the wannabe CIA agents were caught.
Nixon denied any connection to these thugs. Americans believed him (likely we wanted to believe him). He was reelected with the greatest landslide since James Monroe. Eighteen million more voters selected Nixon instead of McGovern, a record still held to this day for the biggest number of popular votes over an opponent. The Electoral Vote stood at 520 for Nixon and 17 for McGovern. Nixon and his team were elated. Nixon had campaigned that the media was liberal, out to get him. The Newspapers and TV reporters were liars and crooks, and he “was not a crook.” The silent majority of Americans had seen through the lies and had voted intelligently.
I would give a great deal for Nixon’s fairy tale to have been true, but it turned out to be largely lies cooked up to dupe the public. While looking in our eyes and saying these things, an informer, Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official, shared what he knew with the press. Nixon gathered hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe the burglars to silence. Nixon then attempted to pit the CIA against the FBI to impede the investigation. It was discovered that Nixon recorded all of his conversations. Investigators demanded these tapes. Nixon at first refused to give them up, arguing that whatever a President does cannot be a crime.
Seven of Nixon’s staff were indicted on charges related to Watergate. By July of 1973, the Supreme Court stepped in, ordering Nixon to turn over his tapes. The Justice Department appointed Archibald Cox, who had worked for JFK, to be Special Prosecutor. Nixon insisted on Cox dismissal when he also demanded the tapes. Several top officials at the Justice Department resigned in protest over the event on Saturday, October 20, 1973. This was dubbed the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Finally, Nixon caved in, surrendered his tapes, and Congress began proceedings to impeach him. Nixon resigned, the only President to do so, on August 8, 1974.
What Trump did at Mar-A-Lago would have been perfectly legal before 1978. Because of all the shenanigans with Nixon, Congress decided to remove future ambiguity and passed a law declaring Presidential documents were no longer the property of the individual President but of the US government.
To quote from this site: “The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, 44 U.S.C. ß2201-2209, governs the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents that were created or received after January 20, 1981 (i.e., beginning with the Reagan Administration). The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents, and subsequently NARA, must manage the records of their Administrations.”
The site lists quite a few regulations that pertain to the Presidential records Act. (NARA being the “National Archives and Records Administration“). Here they are:
Specifically, the PRA:
- Establishes public ownership of all Presidential records and defines the term Presidential records.
- Requires that Vice-Presidential records be treated in the same way as Presidential records.
- Places the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.
- Requires that the President and his staff take all practical steps to file personal records separately from Presidential records.
- Allows the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal have been obtained in writing.
- Establishes in law that any incumbent Presidential records (whether textual or electronic) held on courtesy storage by the Archivist remain in the exclusive legal custody of the President and that any request or order for access to such records must be made to the President, not NARA.
- Establishes that Presidential records automatically transfer into the legal custody of the Archivist as soon as the President leaves office.
- Establishes a process by which the President may restrict and the public may obtain access to these records after the President leaves office; specifically, the PRA allows for public access to Presidential records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) beginning five years after the end of the Administration, but allows the President to invoke as many as six specific restrictions to public access for up to twelve years.
- Codifies the process by which former and incumbent Presidents conduct reviews for executive privilege prior to public release of records by NARA (which had formerly been governed by Executive order 13489).
- Establishes procedures for Congress, courts, and subsequent Administrations to obtain “special access” to records from NARA that remain closed to the public, following a privilege review period by the former and incumbent Presidents; the procedures governing such special access requests continue to be governed by the relevant provisions of E.O. 13489.
- Establishes preservation requirements for official business conducted using non-official electronic messaging accounts: any individual creating Presidential records must not use non-official electronic messaging accounts unless that individual copies an official account as the message is created or forwards a complete copy of the record to an official messaging account. (A similar provision in the Federal Records Act applies to federal agencies.)
- Prevents an individual who has been convicted of a crime related to the review, retention, removal, or destruction of records from being given access to any original records.
I’m glad I looked that up! I’m so much less confused now. Now my question is…how well has this procedure been followed in the past? According to Axios.com: “What happened to the 30 million pages of documents taken from the White House to Chicago by Barack Hussein Obama?” Trump wrote on Truth Social on Thursday. “He refused to give them back!” https://www.axios.com/2022/08/12/national-archives-counters-trumps-claims-obama-took-classified-documents
For that matter, has any other President ever given NARA trouble with their documents? Is Trump the only one? I looked up whether Reagan had given NARA any trouble. I came across some interesting sites, but the only one that bears on the current issue says nothing but that George W. used an executive order to amend the PRA of 1978 (odd…I thought laws were passed by Congress. Then Obama rescinded Bush’s order, ostensibly reverting the law back to the original. But I can find nothing on how cooperative Reagan was or was not. https://www.thereaganfiles.com/the-pra-and-the-reagan.html
According to the NARA website, the transfer of documents between Bush W and Obama was the smoothest in their history: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/winter/presidential-transitions
Quoting Axios.com again: “The National Archives said it moved about 30 million pages of unclassified records from the Obama administration to a facility that it maintains in Chicago. Classified documents remain in a facility in Washington, D.C.” Evidently they went on the offensive against Trump to defend Obama. Likely this does look a bit suspicious to those of us who don’t trust the government, but personally…I see little reason why NARA would jump into the argument if it weren’t true. What do you think? Does this add weight in your eyes to Trump’s claims, or does this discredit his claims?
Other than this, I honestly find very little…wait.
Finally, after doing some really fancy digging on the internet, I found something that at least very remotely compares:
“President Clinton’s national security adviser removed classified documents from the National Archives, hid them under a construction trailer and later tried to find the trash collector to retrieve them, the agency’s internal watchdog said Wednesday.
“The report was issued more than a year after Sandy Berger pleaded guilty and received a criminal sentence for removing the documents.
Berger took the documents in the fall of 2003 while working to prepare himself and Clinton administration witnesses for testimony to the Sept. 11 commission. Berger was authorized as the Clinton administration’s representative to make sure the commission got the correct classified materials.”
Ok, I’ll admit, this is not (I assume) 15 boxes of classified stuff. But…are we so sure this is materially different from what Trump has done? So what happened in this case? Because I frankly don’t remember it.
According to CBS: “Berger pleaded guilty to unlawfully removing and retaining classified documents. He was fined $50,000, ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and was barred from access to classified material for three years.”
Essentially, Berger was confronted, and it turned out he tore three documents into little pieces and threw them in the trash.
So while the Clintons have the email scandal that, let’s face it, won Trump the Presidency the first time, they also have a National Security Advisor who wanted to hide something so badly, he risked jail time to hide the evidence.
One last time…how does what Trump did compare to what Sandy Berger did? Does the different levels of power matter? Should Trump have to pay a large fine and do community service? And I know I likely should…but I have no desire to do justice to the many comparisons between Hillary’s computer, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and what Trump did…mainly because the real journalists either are or ought to be making these comparisons themselves. Let me know in the comments if you would like me to do my own take on the issue.
As usual, while I’ve learned a lot, I feel I haven’t a definitive smoking gun to proclaim Trump innocent or guilty. Let me know what you think in the comments. In the meanwhile, in my next post, I will compare Trump’s Mar-A-Lago situation to Hillary Clinton’s computer debacle, the Hunter Biden Lap Top, and perhaps most relevant of all, Edward Snowden. Stay tuned Monday for more Tired Blogging!