01:05:00 mins

The Problem Podcast

The Problem Isn't Biden or Trump. It's How America Keeps Secrets.

The media is chasing the classified documents fiasco like it’s spy vs. spy, Trump vs. Biden. But on this week’s episode, we’re breaking down the absurdity of a national security system that makes it so darn easy to hoard classified documents. We’re joined by Matthew Connelly, professor of history at Columbia and author of The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets. He gives us the inside scoop on how unwieldy our system for keeping state secrets has become, who it’s really designed to protect, and how we might revamp it so that it can actually, you know, keep a secret.


The Problem Isn’t Biden or Trump. It’s How America Keeps Secrets

Ep. 223 Final Transcript


Jay: I want Robby to say the thing he was scared to say. Robby, what did you actually wanna say?

Robby: It’s just that the only way this could be better for the Republicans if it ends up there’s video of Hunter Biden f***ing the documents, [LAUGHTER] you know?

Jon: Boy howdy.


Jon: Alright everybody, welcome back to the podcast. ‘The Problem with Jon Stewart.’ ‘The Problem.’ Don’t forget to watch the Apple TV+ show. More episodes are coming. We’re currently making them. I shouldn’t even be saying that. That’s a state secret. That’s redacted, which brings us to today’s podcast: classified documents. It is all the rage. Who is worse? Trump or Biden? How could this be that one is refusing to cooperate and give back the boxes he took from his office, whereas the other one just f***ing throws it by the car in his garage. We’re gonna be talking to Matthew Connelly, who’s a professor of International Global History at Columbia University. He has written a book called, ‘The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets’ and he is about to make bank. He couldn’t have written a more apropos and timely book. I think it comes out real soon. But first we’re gonna talk to Robby Slowik and Jay Jurden, our fabulous writers.

Jay and Robby: Hello!

Jon: Are you just aflutter over the news of classified documents? I went in for a colonoscopy this weekend. I have top secret apparently — what they found – no polyps. [LAUGHTER]

Robby: Inside?

Jon: Inside. I didn’t even know I had it. Top Secret.

Robby: You’re gonna have to hand those over to the FBI, Jon.

Jon: Oh no, they’re in there right now.

Jay: Oh, Jon, I have bad news if they found ’em in there, that’s not a top secret. That’s a bottom secret.


Jon: Jay. Beautifully done.

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: Well done. And this is now, Mike Pence apparently classified information in his house.

Jay: The Mike Pence information, the classified docs were just ladies in suggestive dress.

Robby: Yes.


Jay: I think that’s what they found. I think a woman was wearing — she’s shaved above the knee.

Jon: Yes.

Jay: And I think he’s in big trouble.

Jon: He is not allowed to read documents unless his wife is present.


Robby: “Please, please don’t show mother my phone.”


Jon: Can I ask, have either of you ever been fired?

Jay: Ooooh. I’ve had a company close and I was one of the people who was let go, but I’ve never been fired, fired. Wait a second, Jon, why are you saying this today? On the podcast this way?

Jon: No, let me explain.

Jay: OK.

Robby: Yes.

Jon: I’ve been fired a lot.

Robby: Uh-huh.

Jon: I’ve been canceled. I’ve had a show with my name on it where they call down and go, “Get the f*** out of the building [JAY LAUGHS] and we’re changing the locks.” And I never took s*** that later on I’d be like, “Oh, I shouldn’t have taken that s***.” Like I’ve had to evacuate in the manner that is like the place is on fire. Get out. And I never took s*** that wasn’t mine. These guys, you lose in November. You don’t leave until January. You’re telling me — and all the s*** that you’re not supposed to take has giant letters on it that say, “Don’t Take This.” How the f*** does this happen?

Robby: I’m gonna play devil’s advocate for these guys here.

Jon: Please.

Robby: They live there. I’ve — how many times have you moved a bunch of s*** you didn’t expect to take makes it over to the next place. You know, you show up, find a team building shirt from an event in 97. You’re like, “This should have gone in the trash for sure —”

Jon: But it was mine.

Robby: That’s true.

Jon: It wasn’t — I don’t find like Viacom and MTV folders and s*** or their property especially if it says that. Like this is crazy.

Robby: In Trump’s defense, he wasn’t planning to leave on the day he had to leave, you know? [LAUGHTER] That guy packed in a hurry.

Jon: Alright. So his was more a case of just emotional denial and upset.

Robby: Yes. But can I tell you why I think — this is why it’s hard for me to care is because we just over classify. 

Jon: That’s what this guy’s gonna talk about today is that the whole system is utterly busted.

Jay: Like some classified stuff is so kind of like tangential or circumstantial. They’re like, “Well, the reason we can’t keep this napkin is because now we’re gonna know what restaurant. We can never go back.” You know? It’s like —

Jon: Oh yeah, no, it’s all, it’s a web. And I’m sure, listen, if there’s a little note that’s like “Men I’ve killed while president.” OK. [LAUGHTER] I’ll give you that.

Robby: But I will say I love the Biden slow drip here. He’s like a magician just pulling the handkerchief constantly but it’s just classified documents, like every time you think it’s done —

Jon: But it’s only a slow drip —

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: — because the media is broken.

Robby: Yes. 

Jay: Yeah.

Jon: It’s broken. Nobody has any idea of the context of this. And all they’re doing now is talking. They’re trying to one up, “Trump had them in a storage facility. Biden had ’em by his car. Trump had them in a toaster oven. He was giving them out like mints at the end of a meal at a diner.” [LAUGHTER] Or they’re talking about like, “Does this make the 2024 matchup more even?”

Robby: Yes.

Jon: Like they’re f***ing broken.

Jay: But it’s also like I don’t want to minimize this, but you’re telling me a 74 year old and an 80 year old have stuff at the old house? [JON LAUGHS] I believe it. I also expect Biden to be like, “And also, could you check in the fridge in the garage? I think it’s some good deer meat in there [LAUGHTER] It’s not gonna go bad. Try that.”

Robby: That’s such a great defense that “It was in the garage with the Corvette. No one goes in there besides my mechanic Sergeyev, [JAY LAUGHS] you know, that guy can do an oil change with just a document scanner. It’s amazing.”

Jon: I think the best defense that I’ve heard so far is the one Jay just proffered, which is, “I’m old —

Jay: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jon: — I don’t know.”

Robby: Yeah.

Jay: Some it could easily be like his grandkids birthday cards. Like there’s so much stuff sometimes that when they keep finding stuff, they’re like, “Six items,” but they haven’t specified. So like, here’s the difference for me is that Trump was like, “Hey, take a look. Have y’all seen these?” And Biden was like, “Hey, someone look, have y’all seen these?”

Jon: Here’s the part I can’t get over. It’s all f***ing stamped. It’s all stamped classified. So if anybody in any way is sorting this s***, it feels like you would take that stuff and put it to one side. And it just speaks to me of the entitlement that comes from that position. That that position is, you know, we all like to point at Nixon and say, you know, when he says “It’s not illegal if the president does it.” But the truth is they all f***ing think that way. Every single one of ’em.

Jay: Do you think that it’s like kind of unspoken rules? Do you think it’s malevolence?

Jon: I don’t think it’s malevolence. I think it is the entitlement that comes in. It’s like this. And the only other business that I’ve ever been around that’s like this is show business. Have you ever been to a premiere and you see and there’s some seats — even in the heightened world of show business that are taped off, and that’s where Scott Rudin gonna sit. But if somebody tries to sit there, everybody who’s all dressed in black and wearing their headsets f***ing goes bananas. And because security has been breached, this artificial bar that should never have been set in the first place because it’s just set based on entitlement and ego. And if you breach this clearance that’s arbitrary the whole place goes bananas. That’s what I think it is. I don’t think it’s malevolence. I think it’s a manner of being accustomed to a position where if you press a button they have to bring you a Diet Coke.

Jay: This is what you talk about.This is like orthodoxy. These are rules that we’ve kind of ingrained.

Jon: Yes.

Jay: Where we go, “Oh, we can’t do anything different ever.”

Robby: I think they also know, but they know, they’ve seen the unredacted docs, they know it’s bulls***, so they’re not as careful as they should be cuz they know it’s just, it’s newspaper articles and open source intelligence half the time so they’re careless with them.

Jon: This guy, we’re gonna get to the bottom of all of your questions there. We’re gonna talk to our guest. He is Matthew Connelly, a professor of History and he’s written a book about this, so we’re gonna get to him now, guys, and, uh, we’ll figure it all out.


Interview with Matthew Connelly Begins

Jon: OK, we are talking to our guest, Matthew Connelly, he’s a professor of international and global history. Which feels redundant to me, but this is Columbia University and they know what they’re doing for God’s sakes. He is the author of, it’s called ‘The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals about America’s Top Secrets,’ and it may be the most presciently timed book ever written. Matthew Connelly, welcome to ‘The Problem.’

Matthew: It’s good to be here Jon.

Jon: How long were you working on this book about America’s classification system?

Matthew: I’ve been working on the book for about seven years, but the research goes back a decade. I started out all the way back in 2013, but even before then, for decades I’ve been working on declassified documents and kind of driving myself crazy with them.

Jon: Now, when the Donald Trump case about classified documents came up and then obviously the Biden case about classified documents came up, how often did you walk around your apartment shouting, “ka-ching” [MATTHEW LAUGHS] and just making it rain around Columbia University and generally Morningside Heights?

Matthew: Yeah. Well, I don’t normally thank former President Trump but he really did me a solid in this case. Now, having said that, we’ve had scandals, maybe not of this magnitude, but for sure if you think about, you know, whether it was the Republican National Committee email or you know, the IRS not being able to find their email. I mean, those are cases where, you know, either they’re producing lots of information they didn’t want anybody else to look at —

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: — or you know, when somebody wanted to look at it, they somehow found that it couldn’t be found. And so, you know, the most famous, maybe even before the whole Trump affair was Hillary Clinton and her email. So we’ve seen a lot of these scandals and it’s just, if anything, it’s just accelerating.

Jon: Now in terms of scandal. And I’ll take everybody’s word for it, that these are scandals rather than just interesting narratives for the media to focus on, or hyperfocus on. And watching them draw distinctions between Trump and Biden and watching them explain why this is the most important thing that’s happened to the country. The thing I can’t figure out is Barack Obama administration, they prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than anybody in history, maybe even cumulatively. You know, Edward Snowden had to flee to Russia. What is the difference? I don’t understand what keeping a classified document in your Corvette or in your, let’s say, walled fortress of a country club. Why are we even ringing our hands about this?

Matthew: Well, I mean, for sure I think there’s special treatment, right? And there has been for a long time.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: If you look, for instance let’s take the example of when people write their memoirs, right? And when they’re really important people —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: — maybe they were senior officials. They had access to lots of secrets. So what do they do? They go out and they talk to their agent, they talk to their publishers, and they drum up big advances because they’re telling us, you know, that they’re gonna tell all, right? They’re gonna tell us things we didn’t know before —

Jon: Secrets.

Matthew: Because these were secrets, right? You know, because otherwise is it their writing talent? Usually not. 

Jon: I don’t know if you’ve read Mike Pompeo’s book [MATTHEW LAUGHS] but it is —

Matthew: I’ve not yet had the pleasure.

Jon: I don’t want to say Tolstoy-esque.


Matthew: Yeah, but just think of it. There are lots of people. There’s 1.3 million people in America now have a top secret security clearance.

Jon: Wait, how many?

Matthew: 1.3 million. A top secret security clearance.

Jon: Tops — can see anything.

Matthew: Well, anything that’s classified top secret where they are determined to have a, “need to know.”

Jon: Let’s walk back.

Matthew: Yeah.

Jon: What are America’s classification categories? 

Matthew: OK, so I’ll give you the rundown. So there’s top secret, right?

Jon: OK, and that is the top.

Matthew: It’s the top of the top secret.

Jon: It’s got the word top in it.

Matthew: There are people who say that, “Ugh, this was, you know, sensitive, compartmentalized information.” That means it was even more top secret than top secret. 

Jon: What?

Matthew: And this is just an example of this whole culture of secrecy. These people really get into this stuff, you know, telling you about all the gradations and you know, the special access programs.

Jon: Yes.

Matthew: But you know, the way to think of it. To be simple, to the extent that’s possible with something as complicated as this is that it’s a little bit like a matrix, right? So there are levels of secrecy, right? There’s top secret, there’s secret, there’s confidential, there’s, controlled unclassified information. So there are these different levels.

Jon: OK.

Matthew: But then there are also these silos. So there are all these different programs, many of them special access programs where you have to be read in. You have to have what they call a “need to know,” to have access to the secrets that are in that silo. 

Jon: And apparently just telling people that we have those programs can get you sent to Russia [MATTHEW LAUGHS] or can, can make you live in an embassy somewhere in, you know it’s wild.

Matthew: Yeah. If you’re one of those people. You know, who’s been read in and you had access to that information and then you go out and you tell somebody we have this program, and you tell them what it is, then for sure you can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. [JON SIGHS] So what’s been happening, like you said, is in recent years, more and more people are getting prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and you’re absolutely right. Under Barack Obama, there were more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than in all previous administrations combined.

Jon: Combined?

Matthew: Yes.

Jon: Oh, see, I thought I made that up, but I —

Matthew: No, it’s true.

Jon: Now I feel — now I mean, you have Chelsea Manning was sentenced to thirty-some years under the Espionage Act for passing things to WikiLeaks.

Matthew: Mm-hmm. And now Assange himself is under threat of prosecution. And if you believe that he’s a journalist and many people do.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: He is the first journalist now to be threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act. So not just the sources.

Jon: But didn’t — I thought that the Obama administration also threatened journalists with prosecution.

Matthew: You’re right. There were threats, but it’s the following through.

Jon: But they didn’t go through with it?

Matthew: Yes.

Jon: And most of the things that we learn from all this are things we already know. They’re generally, they are not particularly exposing of state secrets. So is it merely the act of showing it to somebody or having it in your possession?

Matthew: Well, when you read in the law, you know, there’s language like, you know, “to further the interests of a foreign power,” right? And that can be important. So, you know, like let’s say if somebody accidentally disclosed something or they, in the case, you know, many people think with President Biden, they think he mishandled classified information. So that’s a different matter and typically it’s a much less serious offense.

Jon: So mishandling is — would be considered a misdemeanor in the world of classification, passing that so that the public finds out this information whether a whistleblower, otherwise, that’s considered the felony?

Matthew: Well, this is the time I say that I’m not a lawyer [MATTHEW LAUGHS] so you don’t want to get your legal advice from me.

Jon: I have an Honorary Doctorate, so I’m just gonna say that I’m correct.

Matthew: Yeah. But, you know, working in this space, I have, you know, had the experience, you know, of reading legal briefs, you know about what it is you can get prosecuted for.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: You know, so for an example, when I first started out, I mentioned how it was about 10 years ago. I got together with some colleagues in the statistics department in computer science, and we had this idea, “Hey, you know, there’s all this secrecy and there are millions, now millions of declassified documents,” and who knows how many still classified, billions probably. And we thought, you know, “Why don’t we begin using like these data science tools to get to the bottom of this?” Like, what, let’s start figuring out like what is like an actual top secret and what is really something that’s already in the public domains. People, you know, things that people should already know.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: And what we found is that there are lawyers out there, you know, former government lawyers, you know, one of them was the General Counsel at the NSA. Another one was the head of major crimes at the Southern District. These lawyers told us that we could get prosecuted under the Espionage Act just for analyzing declassified documents. You know, so it’s not just like —

Jon: Wait, what?

Matthew: Yes! I kid you not.

Jon: How in God’s name, you can be prosecuted for espionage by analyzing declassified information?

Matthew: That’s the theory.

Jon: That doesn’t make any sense.

Matthew: If you go to a very fancy law school.

Jon: It’s gotta be a fancy one. 

Matthew: It has to be fancy and you get paid a thousand dollars an hour you can come up with all kinds of theories, right?

Jon: And these are the same institutions that are hoovering up every piece of information that you have in your life. In other words after the Patriot Act, Americans have no privacy. There is nothing classified in terms of information for Americans. The government is welcome to suck it up into giant tubes [MATTHEW LAUGHS] and wherever it is that they store it in windowless buildings in the Nevada desert. But if you even read the things that they’ve declassified, they will f*** you up.

Matthew: Yeah. I mean in this case, the [JON LAUGHS] argument was that we were using new technology which is true, and we had access to, you know, vastly more, you know, data than anyone did before. And that’s true too. But their argument was that this really, the quantitative change, as great as it is, brings a qualitative difference. But at the end of the day, they even agreed, you know, that really it would be an overzealous, maybe over ambitious prosecutor who would try to bring such a case, because luckily in America, we have this thing called the First Amendment. And luckily they’re —

Jon: No, I’m not, I haven’t read up on this on [MATTHEW LAUGHS] so you’re gonna have to —

Matthew: It’s the first one, Jon. Come on. You don’t have to get, just read. Yeah.

Jon: Alright.

Matthew: So anyway, the other one–

Jon: I’m working, I’m actually getting through the preamble right now. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] That’s this year.

Matthew: Yeah, it goes on, right?

Jon: Yeah. Yeah.

Matthew: But anyways, so there’s also legal precedent that academics, and luckily I am one, journalist too, we’re allowed to seek out the truth and we’re even allowed to take certain chances. Take risks in trying to discover things, create new knowledge. And so luckily the Supreme Court a long time ago agreed that you have to let academics do this because, you know, if you’re not even gonna let professors, you know, look around and try to find stuff —

Jon: Then why did Reality Winner go to jail? All she did was she told us about a program that the Russians had. It wasn’t even an American program. It was that the Russians were interfering with our elections.

Matthew: Right. Well, in her case, the, you know, sad thing is that when she, you know, signed up, you know, to work in that position and have access to government documents, secret documents she had to pledge to protect that information. And it’s part of the whole culture, right? Is when you’re inducted into this world, you know, this secret world —

Jon: Yes. The secret cloistered world of 1.4 million Americans. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] This vast — it’s like not to get to “The Last of Us,” but it’s like the mycelium, the threads of the espionage and declassification and classification world that are — this is a vast network —

Matthew: Yeah.

Jon: — of vascularity.

Matthew: Right. And you know, when you think of it, it sounds implausible, right? And there are millions more, by the way, millions more who have other levels of security clearance, whether it’s for secret or confidential. There more people have security clearances, even at the top secret level than live in the District of Columbia.

Jon: Who decides? Who decides that something is top secret? How much clearance? Is that the grand pooh-bah of clearances that then can look? Who decides?

Matthew: Alright. You ready to go into this strange world with me?

Jon: Oh, Matthew Connelly. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] You bring it, baby.

Matthew: Alright, so Jon, let’s say that you would like a job, you know, in the Biden administration, right? And you might even wanna work, you know, in the Pentagon, say, why not, right?

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: So what you have to find out is if you’re gonna be able to get your security clearance. So first, you know, they have to want you for the job, and then you have to go through this long ordeal. You have to fill out a form. Last I checked, I think it’s 138 pages long. You have to fill out the —

Jon: A security clearance form is 138 pages long.

Matthew: A security clearance form. Right. Yeah. And your friends and family are gonna get interviewed by the FBI typically. You’re gonna have to do a long face-to-face interview. Talk about all of your gambling, Jon. All of your substance abuse issues —

Jon: Aw Jesus. Alright.

Matthew: — everything that could potentially —

Jon: Good thing, I don’t wanna work there.

Matthew: I know, right? Me neither.

Jon: Oops, oh boy. Jesus, man.

Matthew: Yeah. But yes, they’re trying to find all these ways in which you could potentially, you know, be vulnerable to blackmail. But it has the effect at the same time — like, I don’t know if you’ve ever belonged, you know, to any kind of, you wouldn’t tell me, right? But any kind of secret society or fraternity —

Jon: Oh, sure.

Matthew: Yeah. They also have these rituals.

Jon: I’m in a ton of those. 

Matthew: Right? Many, too many. But they have their rituals, right? And one of the first things they want is for you to give up your secrets, right? So it has this effect of like, making people feel like when they —

Jon: I think that’s, isn’t that how Scientology works? [MATTHEW LAUGHS] I think that’s kind of the whole game. So wait, they want to know everything about you?

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: I mean, in the old days, you know, look, people that were gay weren’t allowed to have security clearance, obviously was a, a ridiculous bar of entry for that, but what makes them think that using drugs ever makes you vulnerable to blackmail or you’re a security risk?

Matthew: Well, this is an example of how it reflects a certain kind of culture. When you think of it, this whole system was created in the 1940s and 50s right? And so the people in charge of this system, they had a certain sense of what does a loyal American look like, you know? What do they talk like? And surprise surprise, but it turns out that, you know, people who were alcoholics, you know, back in the day people used to call them womanizers like [JON LAUGHS] people would have serial affairs and so on. You know, these people didn’t seem to have problems. 

Jon: That was all fine. 

Matthew: Yeah.

Jon: Was this based on communism? Was this whole idea based on sort of anarchists and communists and trying to weed out the reds in our government or the undesirables?

Matthew: The way it worked, it was especially difficult for people who were, say second generation immigrants, right? Now that’s not to say that plenty of second generation immigrants didn’t get security clearances. Like J. Robert Oppenheimer is a famous example.

Jon: Well, sure.

Matathew: You know, but he went, you know, he went to the right schools, you know —

Jon: Yes and he was making the right thing.

Matthew: Right. He was making the atomic — you needed guys like that. Right?

Jon: That’s right. 

Matthew: But —

Jon: So they would’ve meetings and be like, “You know this, this guy’s Irish. I don’t know how we — [MATTHEW LAUGHS] I don’t know if we can trust this Irish fella.”

Matthew: They put all the Irishmen in the FBI. 

Jon: Interesting. Who designed this classification and clearance regime. Is it designed by Hoover? Was it designed by who — who made it?

Matthew: Yeah. So there were a lot of, you know, cooks in the kitchen.

Jon: OK.

Matthew: But in terms of like the whole system and how it first, you know, got worked out, you know, in terms of levels of clearance and also like the silos of information and the way you had to get these FBI interviews and clearance checks and the rest of it all that started with the Manhattan Project. 

Jon: Oh, wow.

Matthew: And so the Manhattan Project was like the prototype. And then that system propagated itself until eventually it took over, you know, much of our government. Let me just tell you one other thing about Oppenheimer though. So just recently, the Department of Energy, a little late, but they decided that they’re going to void the revocation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Because many years ago, I think it was 1954, Oppenheimer fell outta step with the rest of the national security establishment. He didn’t want to build hydrogen bombs right? He thought that the U.S. had to share nuclear technology in order to prevent nuclear war. And so they found ways to drive him out. And the way they did it was by stripping him of his security clearance. Now, the interesting thing —

Jon: Wow.

Matthew: — is that, you know, they pointed out how he had relatives, you know, who are communist in some cases. In other cases they just for civil libertarians. But you know, one of the people they put on the three man — and they’re all man, of course — you know, one of the men they put on this three panel jury — 

Jon: Well you know why. The ladies gab.


Jon: I don’t know if you knew that. Back in the forties and fifties, the ladies would gab.

Matthew: Oh, don’t get me started, Jon.

Jon: Oh. Yeah.

Matthew: But one of the three, he said, “You know, in my experience, security risks tend to be Jews, right? [JON LAUGHS] Before I know anything about them, I know they’re likely to be Jewish.”

Jon: Wow.

Matthew: Yes! And that’s why they picked him! They put that guy on the jury so that he could judge Oppenheimer. 

Jon: A three person jury who decided, “Well, that guy is Jewish.” And they were like, “You know, he’s Jewish enough that he can design the bomb, but he’s a little too Jewish to keep going.”

Matthew: So this is how we end up with this national security establishment where, you know, don’t believe what you see on TV. OK? Like if you watch tv, you think, “Oh my God, all the leaders of the CIA are African-American,” right? [JON LAUGHS] And they have all these interesting — you’re like, “No, sadly. I’m sorry to tell you, but —” yes. Systematically for decades, it’s been particularly difficult for people who are not white straight men to get security clearances.

Jon: And here’s the crazy part weren’t there people in the Trump administration who failed their security clearance test, and then ultimately the administration was like, “Eh, f*** it.”

Matthew: Yeah.

Jon: “It’s fine. He can go to the meeting.”

Matthew: Well, it’s an example of how, you know this is one true thing that Trump said is that, “a president is sovereign over secrecy.” The president ultimately controls like how this information is defined, who gets access to it. And so if he decides like, “Well, my no good son-in-law, I don’t care what you say about him, I’m still gonna let him have access to top secrets.”

Jon: Right.

Matthew: At the end of the day, you know, he’s the one — it, you know, if he doesn’t like the way the regulations are written, he can rewrite them. All these executive orders are executive orders by the president.

Jon: So, we have an enormous regime. We have a regime of secrecy, we have a regime of classification.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: It is millions of people deep. There are juries that decide what gets classified and what doesn’t.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: And then there’s the top secret, and then of course there’s the SCIF. This stuff is so hot to the — it’s so juicy that you can only — if you take it with you, it is like the monkey’s paw. It will curse you. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] You must only look at it in the SCIF. But the truth is this is an arbitrary administrative bureaucracy based on trying to keep the bomb out of Russia’s hands.

Matthew: And you know, Jon, it’s like the best kept secret in Washington.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: You know, there’s this aura, right? Around the whole national secrecy complex. Like we all know it’s, “Oh, it’s so complicated, and they have to be so careful and like, they have to get clearances and everything has to be stamped. It has to be inside envelopes and other envelopes,” and it’s true.There are all these rules and regulations, but the fact is that’s not the way it actually works on the inside. What you find inside is a system outta control, right? They just can’t agree among themselves on what secrets they actually have to protect. 

Jon: Wow. 

Matthew: And as a result huge amounts of information are protected at the highest level.

Jon: It’s gotta be at the highest level. Gotta be the SCIF.

Matthew: At the highest level. Yeah.

Jon: They probably decided in a skiff.

Matthew: Yeah and one of the reasons for that it’s basic human nature and psychologists have studied this. If you take random pieces of paper and you stamp some of them secret, those are the pieces of paper that people think are important and valuable. So it’s a very human need as well. 

Jon: Let me give you a different human need.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: That I have found generally in administrative states and bureaucracies. And that is the need to cover your hiney. That so — how much of this is a** covering so that future administrations when they come in don’t reveal what a bonehead you were when you made certain decisions about drones and wars and all kinds of other things that would embarrass you for your incompetence.

Matthew: Yeah, so a lot of this stuff, it’s just what you said, there’s no incentive to declassify stuff. You know, all the incentives are to mark things as secret or top secret because otherwise people won’t think that information’s important so that your boss might not pay attention to it. Or like you said, like maybe you would’ve disclosed something that you weren’t meant to. And the people who live in this world, you know, they are lifers, most of them, like they spent decades working inside this national secrecy complex.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: And so sometimes they don’t even know what’s publicly known. Because pretty much everything they read is classified. So after a while they don’t actually know what the rest of the world knows. So even like senior CIA officials have commented on this kind of problem. And they call them innocents. They say they’re all too many of these people in government. These people who don’t actually know the public already knows much of what they think is secret.

Jon: The thing that I don’t understand is, and then you have those, you know, they’ll talk about, for instance, the Kennedy assassination. “After 25 years, we will declassify all the materials from the Warren Report and the Kennedy assassination and we will finally —” and 25 years passes and they’re like, “40 years, after 50 years, we will —” and then they declassify it, but they actually don’t declassify everything and then they redact the s*** out of all these other things. And it’s an incomprehensible jumble. And some of the things that they have classified are like newspaper reports. 

Matthew: Yes. So newspaper reports. That is a good example because that’s one way that Hillary Clinton got in trouble, uh, is that, you know, she and her aides would pass between them. You know, things that they read about in the newspaper.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Right? And, you know, Hillary, I guess, had trouble with their printers. It was like, “Print this, print this.” But —

Jon: Oh my Lord.

Matthew: But in other cases, you know, clearly she’s sharing media reports with her aides, uh, and the issue though is that in some cases these are reports about programs that were still classified. Right? So to take like a common example, the drone program where they were killing, you know, people in Pakistan, so the U.S. government, even though they’re running these missions for years and killing like hundreds of Pakistani citizens, uh, the public position is, you know, “We can neither confirm nor deny.” And so one reason for that, as absurd as it may seem, is that if they did acknowledge that program, and believe it or not, even the declassification of a communication between a Secretary of State and her aides about the program could be seen in this weird world, could be seen as an acknowledgement that could create a diplomatic incident. Then the Pakistani government has to explain an answer for itself. Like, “So why is it that you’re letting the U.S., you know, kill our citizens? Why is it that they’re flying their aircraft overhead?” As long as everybody pretends it’s not happening, nobody has to take a position on it.

Jon: But everybody knows it’s happening and there’ve been news reports that it’s been happening. And so much of this, the only thing that’s ever revealed, like the one thing I thought WikiLeaks was really amazing at revealing is how much of a fear-based industry it is.

Matthew: Oh yeah.

Jon: That it is people covering their a**es.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: And not wanting to take responsibility for decisions.

Matthew: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, journalists have a role in this as well. You know, I have to say.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Uh, and even some academics, um, that is, you know, when we work on this subject, we want everyone to know how exciting it is, right? And it is.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Like there are really appalling secrets. Like there are things that I discovered in doing my research, writing my book, that I was amazed by,

Jon: Don’t tell me, cause I don’t wanna go to jail.

Matthew: No. Can’t tell you. I can neither confirm nor deny, but like you said, when you look at the, you know, even a fraction of a quarter of million cables, that came out because of WikiLeaks. Right? That Chelsea Manning, uh, gave to Julian Assange that were then published for the world.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: It led to a whole series of stories in the media, right? Dozens of them where they talk about, uh, the revelations of, of WikiLeaks. When you track those stories down, in most cases, you find that these are things that are already well known in public. It just so happened that they found a document —

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: — that was secret that said the same thing, and — 

Jon: That was stamped, that was it.

Matthew: Yeah, it had the stamp. So now the journalists are interested in it. If it didn’t have the stamp, they probably would’ve ignored it.

Jon: We know this country has pulled a multitude of coups. We know this country has used all kinds of manner of propaganda and manipulation, especially when it comes to getting us into wars or keeping us into wars. We know all of these things. So why are we pretending?

Matthew: Well, for a few reasons. I mean, one, like, it’s how you get paid. I mean,  this government spends over 18 billion a year on classifying and protecting information.

Jon: Wait, what?

Matthew: — 18 over $18 billion dollars a year. This is bigger than the budget of like the US Treasury, right? So this would be one of those larger departments in our government. If all the spending on secrecy was in one place.

Jon: Well then how does this stuff end up in boxes in peoples [MATTHEW LAUGHS] — You would think for billion, somebody would’ve gone and said, “Hey man, I think we’re missing.”

Matthew: It’s the volume. It’s the volume. That’s the other thing. It’s the system can no longer cope with the sheer volume of so-called secret information.

Jon: Oh dear God.

Matthew: So back when they were trying to track this, they, they, the government, uh, used to put out an annual report, they still do, but they’ve basically given up on what they used to do, which is they tried to count how many times every year some government official classified something as secret. So in 2012 they said it was over 90 million times. So that’s three times every second. 

Jon: Three times every second somebody is saying —

Matthew: Yeah.

Jon: — this is classified.

Matthew: Right. And just the other day I was looking at a document from the Carter administration back in 1977. They were trying to do something about this, you know, impossible problem and. The NSA, the National Security Agency, the people like who spy on everyone, um, and surveil us. They tried to get exempted entirely, you know, from the whole system for trying to review and release information. [JON LAUGHS] And one argument they made is that — 

Jon: Was that request classified, [MATTHEW LAUGHS] was that a top secret request?

Matthew: It was in the Carter Library for decades before we had found this document with a bunch of other documents. So the figure they gave is, they said, “How are we supposed to declassify stuff? We produce 10,000 secret reports a day.” So this is back in 1977. Can you imagine what the volume is now? It’s estimated the State Department, even, I think it was like 8 or 10 years ago, the State Department is producing 2 billion email a day, right? So how are you gonna control and protect all of those secrets?

Jon: And the crazy part is it doesn’t feel as though journalists have any sense of how to put any of this into context. Right now, they are chasing something that they believe is spy versus spy, Trump v Biden. When they’re not looking at the broader absurdity of the entire national security state.

Matthew: Right. It’s like every year or so, uh, we’re still playing the same games.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: But the side switch uniforms, right? So if you remember, like during the Hillary Clinton email affair. 

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: We had a lot of Democrats saying like, “Oh, you know, a lot of this stuff isn’t even secret. You know, who cares?” This is like, you know, a bunch of bureaucrats coming after Hillary for their own self-interested reasons. When it happened with Trump and Mar-a-Lago. It’s as if they all switched sides, and now it was the Republicans saying basically the same thing. The Democrats are saying that he’s endangering national security. Now, I’m not saying that they’re wrong.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Right? I think it’s entirely possible, you know, that some of the things that Trump took, he took because these really were explosive secrets, like these could be deeply incriminating, and that’s probably why we’re gonna talk about it endlessly, right? And with Biden too — 

Jon: The problem is we don’t have a sense of what’s actually deeply incriminating or what’s actually deeply secret or what it is they’re protecting.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: And by the by, these guys can just call up somebody. I mean, they — we just had this case now of the FBI agent, I think his name is McGonigal, who is — was looking into the information that Reality Winner had put out that the Russians were interfering with the election system. Well, it turns out now he is being accused of colluding with Deripaska, who is the Russian interloper who was there trying to interfere. Like this whole thing is so deeply f***ed.

Matthew: Yes. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] And it’s even more f***ed then we realize because the vast majority of us, like whether we’re playing on one side or the other, we think what we’re fighting about is secrecy. But actually what bothers me is that whether we’re talking about Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump or the Republican National Committee or what have you. What’s at stake here is our history, because what — in every case they have done — 

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Matthew: Even leaving aside the question of whether they endangered national security, they were stealing property, right? Those documents don’t belong to them. They belong to you and me. This is our heritage.

Jon: Yeah but you’re appealing though to our higher [MATTHEW LAUGHS] aspirations as a country you’re not thinking about this in the Sun Tzu sense, which is everything is information to be weaponized.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: What has happened now to the information state is it is viewed in the same way that DARPA would view uh, a new advance in, in technology is — 

Matthew: Mm-hmm. 

Jon: How do I, and by the way, I don’t think that’s new. I think weaponization, of whatever weapons you have at your disposal to, you know, attack your enemies has always been done even domestically with politics.

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: But it’s really sophisticated now.

Matthew: Well, to quote another sage, Dr. Phil, I would ask the question.

Jon: Nice.

Matthew: “How’s that working out for you?” [MATTHEW LAUGHS]

Jon: I would say to that, to quote another Dr. Phil guest, “Catch me outside. How ‘bout that?” [MATTHEW LAUGHS]

Matthew: It’s a little bit like, OK, so you took up this cudgel and you’re beating the crap out of the other guy. 

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: Because he was found to have these secret documents. 

Jon: Right. Well, and obviously because he’s Trump.

Matthew: Yeah.

Jon: He won’t cooperate.

Matthew: Right.

Jon; He’s above the law because he’s a man of no accountability and all entitlement. 

Matthew: Yeah. 

Jon: We know that.

Matthew: Right. And don’t get me wrong, I would join you. I would pick up another cudgel and I would continue beating him.

Jon: Yes.

Matthew: Um, but I might be beating him for other reasons. Right?

Jon: Right.

Matthew: Because my grievance with Donald Trump is not only is he like the crappy, you know, roommate who moved out and took a bunch of your stuff. 

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: He’s claiming it was his all.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: Right.

Jon: Because he’s the president.

Matthew: Right. And so obviously that’s different than Joe Biden, that kind of, at least so far anyway, we think he’s probably more of the absent-minded roommate. And he was throwing everything in trash bags. [JON LAUGHS] And he ended up taking a few things that are yours, and then he apologized and he said, “Hey, can I buy you a coffee?” You know? 

Jon: Oh dear God. 

Matthew: Right.

Jon: But doesn’t it show that in this country when you are on the inside, you don’t in any way abide by these norms and regulations that we all talk — See, that’s what, when, when we talked about that belongs to the people.

Matthew: Right.

Jon: You know, it’s that same stuff I have with the Hatch Act where, you know, they, “You can’t, from the podium of the White House try and, uh, you know, utilize the bully pulpit for personal gain,” and you’re like, “Do you have any idea what branding is?” Like of course you’re using it for personal gain. But it’s, I think it’s the condescension. 

Matthew: Oh, yeah. 

Jon: And the high mindedness of what they say they’re doing.

Matthew: Right.

Jon: Versus the fact that like, if you went there, they’re probably using classified s*** as coasters. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] Like there isn’t this, treating of it with the solemnity that they say there is.

Matthew: Right. Yeah. I think that’s part of Hillary Clinton’s problem with the email affair.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Is that many people thought, oh, this is just another example. Uh, how the rest of us have to follow these rules and we’re gonna get in a lot of trouble. We might even get prosecuted if we don’t. Whereas, you know, Hillary Clinton decided that it would be more convenient for her. I mean, she actually used the word convenient. It would be convenient for her right. 

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: To disregard these rules and these laws actually —

Jon: Which they all do because it is a city that runs on entitlement.

Matthew: And where did she get this idea from? Colin Powell. [JON LAUGHS] Colin Powell told her, “Don’t use that State Department email system. Don’t worry about it. You could use” —

Jon: It’s a pain.

Matthew: Yeah, “You could use your own email.” And by the way, we don’t know everything that was said between them, but I have yet to hear, uh, a good explanation for why this was not about trying to avoid having any of these records released to the public, because if you’re creating public records as even Hillary eventually found out, then they are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. So journalists and historians will come after you and ask for those records, and you might even have to produce them.

Jon: Yeah, but how long — if you are classifying three things every second. 

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: What good is FOIA? What good is the Freedom of Information Act? Because the bureaucratic delay to even get ahold of the information and if there’s that much information, it’s the oldest trick in any law docudrama that you would see just, “Oh, you want, you want the disclosure evidence?” And then they send over 18 semi trucks filled with boxes, like they’ll just flood the zone with bulls***.

Matthew: Oh yeah. I mean, I filed, uh, the equivalent of FOIAs at several presidential libraries when I first started out, like seven years ago.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: I have not gotten anything from any of them. Now, one reason for this, the one reason why the whole FOIA system has become dysfunctional — 

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Is because the vast majority of people who submit FOIAs are not historians. They’re not journalists, they’re not even the people who wanna know about the UFOs at Roswell. The people who submit FOIAs, by and large, these are commercial entities. They’re private firms, information brokers, that are seeking commercial intelligence that they can store in databases and sell to customers. 

Jon: Oh dear God. 

Matthew: And they are using like more than 90% of the FOIAs filed are ones that are filed by these information brokers like Thomson Reuters.

Jon: They’re data mining. They’re basically data mining.

Matthew: Absolutely. Yeah and then they’re reselling this public information to private parties that are able to pay their subscription fees.

Jon: See, I don’t understand why you are not on every one of these 24 hour news networks, explaining just how broken this whole security apparatus and classification system is. Rather than everybody going, “Who is more culpable in American secrets, Trump or Biden,” like nobody is looking at the macro of a system that’s utterly broken.

Matthew: I’d like to think, you know, that people are beginning to realize, like, I noticed, like I’m one of these people, not just like reading the New York Times, but I like to read what their readers say —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: — and the most popular comments. And when the Biden story first broke, you know, the first, you know, dozen or so were people saying, “This is nothing. This is a nothing burger.” And then, you know, the next one, the one after that, and finally by the time you got to like, “Oh, and then there were the ones next to his Corvette,” then people are like, “Wait a minute here. There’s something wrong with this whole system.” Right?

Jon: That’s right.

Matthew: So that’s me. I’m the guy, but unfortunately, apparently I have a face for radio. [JON LAUGHS] So you may not be seeing me [MATTHEW LAUGHS] on your local television. 

Jon: [MATTHEW LAUGHS] Not true my friend, not true handsome, as the day is long. I say that. I know you’re, you’re probably listening to this in your car, but he’s, he’s dead on wrong.

Matthew: Very tall too.

Jon: Very tall, very handsome. In terms of what’s really going on with the security state and all the redactions. And you know, when we saw that in the Mueller report and they made such a big deal of everybody had to go to the SCIF and then the Republicans tried to storm the SCIF and get into the SCIF and then the redactions and you know, there was a breathless coverage of it on the day they released the report and then everybody forgot about it because nobody goes through and tries to discern what these redactions really mean. So isn’t that just another layer of obfuscation that the government can control to keep whatever embarrassment they don’t want out into the public sphere.

Matthew: Yeah. I remember years ago when I first started, you know, working with data scientists, like one thing I found is like their students are much more forthright than the ones you find in, say, our history department here. They will — if they think you’re an idiot, they will tell you. [JON LAUGHS] And so, you know, so they had all kinds of reactions when we first started working with these declassified documents and all their markings and all their redactions and such. And one of them, God bless her, she said, she talked about this as censorship. and I said, “No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t censorship.”

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: “You know, this is, you know, these were meant to be public documents, at least not originally. You know, they’re meant to be redacting things that might jeopardize national security.” But as the years have gone by and I see, like working with data scientists when we can, you know, train algorithms to start finding like what exactly they typically redact, I began to realize it is censorship. It’s absolutely censorship. They’re trying to redact the historical record to provide a certain version of what happened, which is the one they think is safe to share with the rest of us.

Jon: Everybody learned from Nixon, like, you really shouldn’t rec — if you don’t have a recording, I’m just gonna put this, this black ink mark over it and no one’s going to be able to discern what it is that we were talking about.

Matthew: Jon, did you know that the Joint Chiefs of Staff destroyed all the records or almost all the records of all their meetings back in the early seventies, as soon as they thought somebody might file a Freedom of Information Act request or some other way, it might get out. They destroyed all their records and then they stopped taking records. It’s like a numbers racket. They decided, you know, they should just not commit anything to paper.

Jon: Right. And that’s what, that was the whole thing with the Trump administration, anything that was on paper, he would chew up and throw in the toilet. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] You know, the whole thing is mishegoss. How do you reign it in and how do you gain any kind of control that now you talk about AI, but I think, boy, if there’s anything that’s gonna lend itself to conspiracy theory, it’s allowing chat GPT to be in charge of our national security state and decide what we need to know and what we don’t.

Matthew: Yeah, so we are going to have to use technology because to a large extent, especially in more recent years, a lot of what’s happening, it’s just the exponential growth of information generally. And also it’s not just documents, of course, like more and more of it, it’s video, it’s audio, you know, it’s Zoom calls and spreadsheets and all the rest of it. So you just can’t continue this system where they have about 2,000 people in the government. In the entire government, there are 2,000 people doing this, going through documents, deciding what can be released to the public. You know, not when the state department’s producing 2 billion email a year, let alone everything the NSA and everyone else is doing. So we are, I’m sorry to break it to you, but we are gonna have to use like machine learning algorithms to begin sorting through all this and prioritizing the information that really does have to be protected most closely. Now it’s not just me, there is this thing. I hope more people start hearing about it. It’s called the Public Interest Declassification Board.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: And this was created by Congress and the White House in order to make sure the public is represented in these kinds of discussions. Now, unfortunately, the PIDB is largely powerless. [JON LAUGHS] They have almost no staff —

Jon: So there’s an $18 billion security and classification agency, and then there’s a board of public interest of civilians. 

Matthew: Unpaid. 

Jon: Doesn’t have any money. Unpaid. Nobody really uses it. OK, yeah it makes  sense. 

Matthew: Yeah, they’re unpaid. They’re volunteers. They have no staff.

Jon: OK. 

Matthew: Virtually no staff. They’re tucked away in the national archives, right.

Jon: Right.

Matthew: But you know, this is supposed to be the voice, you know, of the people, right?

Jon: Yes. OK. 

Matthew: Who are supposed to be speaking out? And for years, what they’ve been saying is we have to begin working with data scientists, developing tools that’s gonna allow us to get on top of this whole mess. So they’re right. They’re absolutely right. And the work I’ve been doing with colleagues, even with declassified data, even with the small budget we have from grants here and there, we’ve been able to learn a lot, right. And it’s entirely feasible. You could build systems, yes with classified information within protected systems. 

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: That could begin to rank order those records that really have to be studied closely and accelerate the release of everything else.

Jon: And maybe begin to narrow this regime to actually things that would be in a national security interest.

Matthew: Absolutely, because this system, it would detect outliers, right? So you would be able to see which officials tend to classify everything top secret. Or on the other hand, which official you know, maybe is not classifying something that probably ought to be classified. Think of your spam filter. Spam filters have gotten really good, right?

Jon: Right.

Matthew: I don’t know if you go through what they collect, but, you know, 99% of the cases it’s spam. 

Jon: I mostly, I take that off because sometimes I feel lonely. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] So it helps me feel more popular. But, so I’m gonna ask you that and maybe this is, it’s something that’s unknowable. 

Matthew: Mm-hmm.

Jon: In your research, as you look through it, how much of it is malevolence? How much of it is bureaucracy and incompetence? And how much of it is malevolence taking advantage of administration and incompetence?

Matthew: Well, if this was the first anyone heard about these kinds of problems, you know, then maybe I’d say, “Yeah, you know, they’ve screwed up right, and we should try to fix it.” But if you go back through the history as I have, if you like dig into the archives and you read, you know the records, you know, going all the way back to FDR —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: What you find is from the very out set they knew that they were building a system where it was all about secrecy and they did not create any systems to guarantee transparency and accountability. And by the early 1950s, they already realized that over classification was an enormous and growing problem. And year after year after year, you had committees and commissions in the Pentagon, you know, in the White House. I mean, these were all themselves like national security experts saying like, “Something has to be done,” and every single administration, but one. 

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: Every administration issued a new executive order that was supposed to fix the system. But what happened in every single instance is that, what were supposed to be reforms. The reality is they were trying to concentrate power over the system in the White House and among the presidents of appointees. 

Jon: Wow. 

Matthew: So that’s why I say this isn’t just incompetence, there is plenty of incompetence. 

Jon: This is an intentionally designed labyrinth that no one can negotiate. Not necessarily just to protect American security, but to protect the administration.

Matthew: Yeah because whoever occupies the White House has sovereign control over what’s secret. They can send people to prison for revealing secrets that they define as national security information — 

Jon: Right. Which they’ve done.

Matthew: And they’ll keep doing it, right? And so that’s why I think ultimately this is about power. 

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: You know, this is about the only kind of sovereign power that exists in our political system, the way that presidents get to decide what the rest of us are allowed to know.

Jon: Last question, and this would be the most shocking revelation in your mind as you, as you went through this, was there anything that shocked your conscience?

Matthew: You know, some of what, I studied were things I think a lot of us have heard about, like the experimentation, radiological experimentation on — 

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Matthew: American servicemen. Some of us might have even heard about, you know, the way they experimented on children, like children who they said were terminally ill, but turned out not to be. They experimented on elderly, homeless people. But in a way, what was most shocking was when I found the document where they said, “You know, if this gets out, some of us might be liable for prosecution, so we have to make sure that we classify all of this so that nobody ever sees it.” To me, even I was a little taken aback. They knew what they were doing. One other reason we know they were doing this, and how they knew they were doing it was because it was at the same time the Nuremberg tribunal was in session.

Jon: Wow!

Matthew: Yeah. And the very day, the very day that doctors, American doctors came up with standards for how you should conduct experiments, right? And make sure that people knew what they were signing up for. That was the day they decided that, in fact, all of this had to be kept secret. So that’s that intentionality that they knew they were engaged in criminal behavior. 

Jon: Right. 

Matthew: Knowing that they were gonna be likened to Nazi doctors, but then they decided they could use secrecy to shield themselves.

Jon: Holy s***.

Matthew: Even I was a little taken aback by that.

Jon: And you know, I think after all these years, the only thing they probably learned is don’t commit that intention in writing. That now that you know that, uh, whatever you put in writing is the historical record. Make that up and I mean, it almost sounds like the mafia where they just go, you know, “Let’s just use phone booths. Or let’s never use, you know, uh, anything that can be, that can be tracked or traced”

Matthew: Right.

Jon: “To express our, uh, intention.” It’s so crazy. And who is it in there that killed John F. Kennedy and what’s his name? [MATTHEW LAUGHS]

Matthew: We all did Jon. We all did.

Jon: [MATTHEW LAUGHS] Perfect. Uh, Matthew Connelly, professor of international and global history at Columbia University, author of “The Declassification Engine: What history reveals about America’s Top Secrets?” 

Matthew: It’s coming out on Valentine’s Day. 

Jon: You know what? There’s no more romantic gift you can give. [MATTHEW LAUGHS] 

Matthew: There’s a love story about FDR in there. 

Jon: That’s right.

Matthew: So it’s safe to give for Valentine’s Day. I guarantee it and I’m a married man. [MATTHEW LAUGHS]

Jon: It’s the love story between America and its secrets. Please check it out. Uh, it’s wonderful. Matthew, thank you so much for joining us.

Matthew: Thank you Jon.

Interview with Matthew Connelly Ends


Jon: What the ever loving f***?

Jay: Jon, what are we allowed to say? [JON LAUGHS] 

Jon: Whatever you want!

Jay: 1.3 million people?

Jon: Yes.

Jon: $18 billion dollars!

Robby: $18 billion dollars.

Jay: Jon, if before I came out, 1.3 billion — 1.3 million people knew I was queer. [JON AND ROBBY LAUGH] That’s not a secret anymore. That’s not a secret.

Robby: Doesn’t — that whole system, it feels so weirdly flirty. Like, “OK, this is just secret. You can tell your wife, but this is top secret. Don’t tell anyone.”

Jon: And then he was like, “And then there’s the top secret that’s categorized in segments.”

Jay: They were like, “Then there’s some compartmentalization and that stuff,” which didn’t sound scarier, but my God. My God. The amount of just s***. We will classify anything just to kind of be like, “Oh no, now it’s over here. We’ll never have, talk about, we never have to deal with it. Now it’s over here.”

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Robby: Yeah. 

Jon: But don’t you now see though, why Snowden, why Assange, why Reality Winner, why uh, Chelsea Manning were so dangerous to them?

Jay: Mm-hmm.

Jon: I mean like WikiLeaks is just basically like, “Hey, somebody sent us a bunch of s*** and we’re just putting it out there.” Like, but the others just exposed programs. These are programs. There’s this program that’s sucking up everything you’ve ever thought. And, uh, the government is doing it, by the way, to protect you. That’s, don’t worry about it. If you’re not doing anything wrong, nothing’s gonna, and they had to get sent away. That’s how pernicious this system is.

Jay: I’m gonna put on my tin foil hat.

Jon: Do it. 

Jay: See, that’s why—

Jon: Bring it. Come on baby.

Jay: — Black conspiracy theories are just s*** that white folks haven’t learned about yet. I’m telling you. [JON AND ROBBY LAUGH] It’s [JON AND ROBBY LAUGH] All this s*** if, cause I have like three uncles who worked in the military that was like, “You know, they’re working on some s***, right?” And I was like, “OK, Uncle RJ. Where’d you —” he’s like, “I can’t. They’re just working on this s***.”

Jon: Right, right, right.

Jay: Or even anyone who said, “You know them folks listening.” And you go, “Who?” “Them folks.”

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: Anything that we talk about that is shocking to us. Like, “You know, they experimented on people?” And Black people are like, “Yeah. Yes.”

Jay: Yeah, yeah. You talking about — I can call my granddad.

Jon: You mean you mean Tuskegee?

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: Yeah. you mean?

Jay: Yes. 

Jon: Yeah.

Jay: It’s such a weird like moment as a viewer to see a person talk about trying to get information that’s old and that’s out and that’s declassified and them even being threatened and you’re on the other side like. “Well, what, what can I even look at?”

Robby: Oh yeah. Being threatened for, that’s what he said. Being threatened for going through declassified information? 

Jon: And by the way, and that’s the s*** they declassified, which, you know Yeah. They’re never going to declassify anything that may cast a bad light.

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: On the way that this all operates. And even when they say like, “We’ll declassify it in 30 years.” Even then they arbitrarily decide, “Well, not this stuff.”

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: This stuff is so sensitive.

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: As to be, it would be detrimental to the national security. I was shocked that this all started during the Manhattan project. That blew my f***ing mind. 

Jay: It was all connected to the nuclear core. There was like a nuclear core to all of this where it was like, well, it’s actually so that, like you said, like atomic secrets never get out. So we need to have an entire system, basically of system of secrecy and it creates, it technically creates, the deep state that people who are on like that conspiracy side of things believes in. Cuz you go, “What if I told you there were 1.3 million people —”

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Jay: “— with Secret Security clearance, who know things that no one else knows and they were working in the government?” 

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: And the crazy thing is you keep thinking, “Oh, they must really know some s***.” But probably 1.2999 million of them, it’s all just like f***ing, “Somebody’s gotta make sure that on Mondays the refrigerator gets cleaned out in the [JAY LAUGHS] kitchen because somebody’s leaving a yogurt drink in there.”

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: “And it stinks up the whole break room.”

Robby: Yeah.

Jay: Jon, you’re talking about the White House Slack, where it’s like, “Take out the food this Friday.”

Robby: Mm-hmm.

Jon: Right!

Jay: “We will not have food in the fridge this weekend.”

Robby: And then you just get a redacted document that just says like a preposition peep show, just like black bars and two or three words. And you just have to infer what that could be.

Jon: You know what’s — you know what I always find interesting though, is the more you dig into like the thirties, the more you realize like the progressive hero that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he had some dark s*** going on. [JAY LAUGHS] I mean, forget about like the stuff that we all know, you know, interning of the Japanese, but like he was designing a, you know, talk about breaking democratic norms. Roosevelt’s the guy who was like, “Two terms? F*** that.” I was like all those different things and that’s really where this new security state arose and I thought it was so stunning when he was saying, you know, it was right after the Nuremberg trials that the American Medical establishment within the security zone or the military medical were like, “Oh, those, so those experiments you’re saying that’s a crime against humanity?”

Jay: That’s the wild part. After they’ve like, basically like had a vivisection, and like opened, they experiment on kids and old people and GIs with radiology. And then they were like, “Oh, that’s bad.”

Robby: “Should we not have offered Dr. Mengele a job? Was that [JON LAUGHS] the wrong thing to do?”

Jon: Let me —

Jay: Well, I wanna ask you two when they, when, uh —

Jon: Oh about the Jews?

Jay: About the Jews, yes!

Robby: Right.

Jon: Is this about the Jews, Jay?

Robby: Typical.

Jay: I have to!

Jon: I knew that was coming!

Robby: Here we go.

Jon: Son of a b****!

Jay: I have to ask.

Jon: We had nothing to do with it!

Jay: No, nothing to do with that. [JON AND JAY LAUGH] Oh my God. I, well now at least I’ll get some free Nets Merch. [JON AND ROBBY LAUGHS] OK. So. [JON LAUGHS] My question truly is that when he said, “Well, you know —”

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Jay: Like during this whole thing, if you were anything but a white Christian male who was also straight, like, they were like, “Well, you know, Jews spill secrets too.” Like that’s an insane level of, like, you, that’s when you make the bar to be able, when you make the bar of entry so high, then you’re like, of course.

Jon: But isn’t that, that’s, isn’t that voting? Isn’t that poll taxes? Isn’t that. It’s — So whatever we need to do to perpetrate power doesn’t seed itself, so whatever system we need to design, Jews are short. What if we make it so that to work in the government you have to be able to dunk. [JAY LAUGHS] You know what I mean? Like that’s the systems are designed —

Robby: Yeah.

Jon: — to perpetuate power. Always.

Jay: It was fascinating also to hear him talk about this in a way that was so much bigger and so much more helpful than what we’re hearing now. Because what I saw yesterday is John Bolton saying, “This is a problem for Biden.” What I saw yesterday was Joe Manchin being like, “I have some concerns.” Like, but this was like, this was actually, it was fruitful. There was something to this that wasn’t just like —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Jay: “And another point for this side.”

Robby: I thought it was also interesting that like, this is a, when you’re talking classified documents, that like deep state type of thing can really come up and he really counteracted that with like the, uh, the Kushner thing of like, it’s basically the deep state being like, “This guy should not have clearance,” and the president can say, “Well, f*** you deep state. I’m the president. I’m just doing it.”

Jon: Right. And the deep state is like the Borg. I think what I, if I was to say there’s anything that is intentional and designed about this, it would be that in an effort to protect the truly despicable and shocking, we are going to cover you in an avalanche of the banal. And they just, so the classification system is just, it’s make anything trying to find a pony in a landfill with a, you know, a sea of manure. A needle in a haystack. And that’s the design of it that seems purposeful, but, uh, it’s fascinating. And could a guy come out with a book at a more opportune time? He’s like, “Valentine’s Day!” I mean, “I’ve been working on this for 10 years.”

Jay: Honestly, Jon, a little suspicious if you ask me.

Jon: He didn’t seem Jewish. [LAUGHTER]

Robby: I can end this with I think, what will be my last words anyway, which is at least AI will save us. [LAUGHTER]

Jon: And on that note, uh, we here at The Problem are signing off once again for the week. Thank you so much for listening. I wanna thank, uh, Matthew Connelly for joining us and, uh, of course Robby and Jay. Fantastic. Check out The Problem airing on Apple TV+, and we’ll see you guys next week.

Jay: Bye.

Robby: Later everybody!


Jon: “The Problem with Jon Stewart Podcast” is an Apple TV+ podcast and a joint Busboy Production.