The discovery of classified documents at the homes of three top elected U.S. officials has left many lawmakers and former government workers shaking their heads and wondering how the country has ended up in this situation.
Authorities found dozens of classified materials at former President Trump’s home last year, including some marked “top secret,” that he did not promptly turn over to the National Archives.
Lawyers for President Biden found several classified documents at his Delaware residence in recent weeks, a discovery that prompted lawyers for former Vice President Mike Pence to search his Indiana home. They found a small number of papers with classified markings in the process.
Lawyers for both Biden and Pence alerted the National Archives and Justice Department about the discoveries.
The findings have lawmakers and aides who have dealt with classified documents puzzled over how there could be a breakdown in process in consecutive administrations, and it has triggered discussion over what reforms could prevent such mistakes from happening in the future. It has also left some officials worried that it will further erode trust in government institutions.
“I think it is an embarrassment because at a minimum it’s bad management,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, who served as a senior adviser in the State Department during the Obama administration and now runs the Leadership Now Project.
“I think the question is how much of a risk does it suggest,” she continued. “Does it suggest behavior that is deliberately seeking to undermine national security? I would like to see the conversation shift to that question, because that’s what we need to know. Has national security been genuinely compromised by these documents, versus information that is relatively benign and was not handed over to a foreign government.”
At the White House, documents that are classified are clearly marked with cover sheets to make them easier to identify. Pence earlier this month explained on Fox News how after receiving a briefing with classified materials, he would put the documents back into the file he received them in. They would frequently go into a “burn bag” and be destroyed by a military aide, he said.
“I think there has been too cavalier an approach to handling classified documents by presidents and senior officials from both parties,” said Brett Bruen, a former diplomat who served as director of global engagement in the Obama administration.
Bruen recalled seeing classified documents tossed onto existing stacks of papers during his time in government, an issue he attributed to political officials who didn’t have the same appreciation “of what it takes to get those secrets and the consequences if they are exposed.”
On the Capitol Hill side, lawmakers and aides have been aghast at the apparent handling of documents within the Executive Branch, especially given the extremely rigorous process members must go through to view classified documents.
“The rule for us on the committee is you don’t take things out of the room. Period. Full stop,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who also chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “I can have a lot of things going on and even before I get to the door when I’ve decided I don’t have anything, I do another check to make sure that I don’t.”
The vast majority of the time, lawmakers must go to a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) to read documents. However, on rare occasions, they can have documents brought to their office to be viewed if it is considered appropriate for them to do so.
According to one former Senate GOP aide, an intelligence staffer will put the document in a special briefcase, which would then be handcuffed to their wrist. Upon arrival, the intelligence staffer would clear the room, save for the lawmaker, and show the document to them one page at a time. After each page is read, it is placed back into a bag and, upon completion, the handcuffed briefcase containing the document is returned.
The news cycle being dominated by the handling of classified documents has left lawmakers wondering what can be done to keep sensitive materials from getting misplaced, and whether the intelligence community may be overzealous in classifying items that don’t need to be classified.
John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security issues, told reporters on Wednesday that procedures governing classified materials have been developed over many years and are changed over time to accommodate changes in technology.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to slap a Band-Aid on and say, ‘Yeah, everything is over-classified.’ But it’s a balance that we try to strike to make sure that everything is appropriately marked and appropriately handled,” Kirby said.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said the proper handling of classified materials is typically under the purview of the executive branch, but that recent events have raised the question of whether there’s a role for Congress to play.
Wyden called the classification system a “broken down mess” that needs to be fixed.
Fueling the problem further, the administration has yet to cooperate with the Senate Intelligence Committee and share the classified papers it collected from Trump or Biden due to the pair of special counsel probes into the handling of those documents. The lack of cooperation has members of the panel fed up, with some teetering on the edge of making threats in the administration’s direction.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), ranking member of the committee, noted that the panel controls funding for some intelligence agencies, indicating that it could decide to withhold that funding if the stonewalling by the administration continues.
In addition, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) vowed to block all Biden administration nominees until the committee is granted access to those papers.
“I think that’s the purpose of all the oversight, is to find out what exactly needs to be done,” Thune said when asked what the upper chamber can do about the executive branch’s issues in handling those documents. “Clearly there are loopholes you can drive a mack truck through.”
Source: The Hill