The Mystery of America’s Secrets Gone AWOL

The Mystery of America’s Secrets Gone AWOL
The National Archives building in Washington on July 22, 2004. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
James Varney

If America’s greatest secrets are so crucial to national security, why do classified documents keep showing up where they shouldn’t?

Since last August, when federal agents raided former President Trump’s Palm Beach home seeking classified documents he had removed from the White House, national secrets have also been discovered at various properties connected to President Biden, including his Delaware home, and at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home.

Although each of these cases were slightly different, they had at least one thing in common: The repository of White House secrets, the National Archives, did not appear to have a firm list of which documents were missing. While Trump claims he had the authority as president to declassify and retain any material from his time in office, Biden and Pence, who had no such authority (either as vice president or while they served in Congress), have said they had inadvertently taken the material with them when they left the veep’s office in 2017 and 2021 respectively. This raises another question: If even underfunded public libraries will flag the failure to return a borrowed book and send out reminder notices, why isn’t a similar process in place to safeguard America’s top secrets? Why weren’t Biden and Pence directed years ago to search their papers for the missing secrets?

“The system is not nearly as robust as it should be,” said Bradley P. Moss, an attorney who specializes in national security matters. “Most of the classified documents that are used on a regular basis [in the White House] are not tracked, logged, and documented nearly as stringently” as they should be. “Is there documentation identifying the originals of the classified documents? Yes, almost certainly. Is that documentation constantly updated to reflect where every copy of every document is currently located and how it was transmitted at every step? Not really. It’s just too much.”

Former Republican congressman Devin Nunes, who is now CEO of the Trump Media and Technology Group, said that handling of classified documents is a scandal. “It’s not like since 9/11 there’s been a lack of money or federal laws specifically for all this,” Nunes said. “The process isn’t broken; people just aren’t following the law. None of this makes any sense unless someone did something illegal.”

National security experts said that given the systems in place to limit access to classified documents it is not surprising that almost all of the recently discovered documents can be traced back to the White House. Here’s how it works.

Only elected officials with the proper clearance can view classified documents, and only in what the government calls a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility” (SCIF). (Famous spies or thieves, such as Edward Snowden or Reality Winner, got their hands on classified material at the agencies that produced it.)

For members of Congress the SCIF is a specific area in the Capitol basement that is governed by tight rules. Before entering the SCIF, people must surrender their phones and other personal devices. “You walk into the SCIF with nothing, you walk out of the SCIF with nothing,” said Javed Ali, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who served stints with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the FBI before joining Trump’s National Security Council. “Whatever 3 or 4 letter agency you’re in, you’re supposed to leave that stuff in the office, because you don’t want any unauthorized or unintentional leaks.”

Nunes said those exiting the congressional SCIF must pass through more than one door and a guard, making it difficult for someone to depart with classified paperwork. No one could recall a case where documents went missing from the Capitol SCIF.

Because of this, Nunes and Ali said, probably the most remarkable recent revelation was that Biden possessed documents from his years in the Senate, 1973–2009. “When you see batches of classified documents,” Ali said, “it’s clear these weren’t one-off mistakes.”

None of the documents in Biden’s possession have been identified and the White House has refused to comment.

Things are different in the White House. The Oval Office, for example, where the president regularly discusses classified matters with his team, is considered a SCIF, and there are other secure locations in the building.

At the White House, copies of documents marked “classified” or the even more secret “compartmentalized” or “codeword” can circulate among officials there with proper clearance. This was underscored by the recent resurfaced White House photo from 2013 showing then-Vice President Biden clutching a classified document folder stamped “CODEWORD” in a public White House setting. Those documents are not, however, supposed to leave one of the White House SCIFs, and they are supposed to be collected at the end of any meeting at which they were reviewed, according to several people familiar with such operations. Eventually, those documents are sent to the National Archives, where they are stored and made available to government officials and others with proper clearance.

The problem is magnified by just how many copies there may be of sensitive paperwork.

“What’s getting lost in all this is it’s very rare that there is only one copy of some of these things,” said a former government official who dealt with the storage of classified docs. “And the system in place is only as good as the people who follow it.” Whether that collection is rigidly observed at the White House, however, seems unclear.

Lanny Davis, who served in the Clinton administration, said it isn’t only Hollywood that stamps “TOP SECRET” and the like atop documents. The color, the font, the folder a document comes in, all of these send clear signals to participants that papers are classified.

“There is no doubt; when you see red lettering atop a document, it isn’t a close call,” Davis said.

The experience of more than a half-dozen people familiar with the process and rules surrounding classified documents thus suggests the White House can be a leaky ship, a finding buttressed by the fact Biden, Trump, and Pence all spent years in the executive branch. In the most famous modern case of pilferage, President Bill Clinton’s former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, was convicted in 2005 of stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives. In 2015–16, an investigation of Hillary Clinton’s nonsecure private server found 113 emails containing classified information, three of which had classified markings, sent while she served as secretary of state.

When a president leaves office, his administration is required to send all presidential and vice-presidential documents, including classified ones, to the National Archives. It’s not unusual for former presidents to bicker over which records should be turned over to government depositories. In addition, active presidents have the authority to classify or declassify documents, an argument made by some of Trump’s team over the papers found in the raid of Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach home.

The National Archives refused two requests from RealClearInvestigations (RCI) to discuss their protocols or to offer comment on the mushrooming scandals.

Although much of the discussion surrounding the recent discovery of classified documents has been colored by partisan politics, experts say the crucial issue is not the specific motivation of Trump, Biden, and Pence but systemic failures inside the White House and at the National Archives to catalog and collect the nation’s secrets.

So far, the mistakes that led to the current scandals have yet to be identified by either the parties that possessed classified documents or the agencies who produced them. Biden has offered no explanation for how classified papers, some reportedly going back to his days as a senator, have been found in offices in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well as the garage and at least one other location in his Wilmington, Delaware, home.
And neither the extent nor nature of the documents has been revealed. Pence has said he takes “full responsibility” for roughly a dozen pages of classified briefings reportedly from foreign trips turning up in his Carmel, Ind., home, but it remains unclear how they got there.
While there have long been complaints about the overclassification of government documents—an estimated 50 million documents each year—there is a general belief that they must be protected. When classified documents were discovered at Trump’s home, President Joe Biden said he couldn’t understand “how anyone could be that irresponsible. … I thought, what data was in there that may compromise sources and methods,” regarding national intelligence.

The partisan furor has been heightened by the Justice Department’s unprecedented step of raiding a former president’s house, while concealing information about Biden’s classified documents for months and now slow-walking searches of the various places they could be. The latter includes the University of Delaware, which has fought Freedom of Information Act requests to review the mountains of documents Biden dedicated to it after his terms as senator.

White House officials have rebuffed all queries into how Biden has handled sensitive material or if any changes have been made to their procedures in light of the embarrassing revelations. Administration officials have dismissed the controversy as simple human error.

“It was probably mishandled carelessly,” Davis said. Davis also believes some of what press accounts have labeled “classified information” is likely sensitive but not necessarily classified formally, meaning what has transpired are examples of bad judgment more than criminal.

Yet the mystery of how documents the government considers sensitive enough to raid houses and appoint independent counsels wound up in multiple, insecure locations lies at the heart of what is going on now, according to Nunes.

“We know how documents got to Mar-a-Lago, and it’s a little odd that they seem to know something was missing,” he said. “We don’t know how the documents got to all of Biden’s places but something doesn’t add up, unless someone took it.”

James Varney is staff writer at RealClearPolitics. Previously he was a national correspondent for The Washington Times. Varney is currently based in Mandeville, Louisiana.
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