The Government Has a Classified-Document Problem

The government spends billions on keeping track of sensitive materials. So why do our valuable documents still go missing?

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Bad news, American taxpayers: After two decades and $10 trillion spent crafting the most sophisticated national security kraken the world has ever known, the United States still can’t seem to keep track of its most highly classified documents. Any high school librarian would be alarmed by the frequency with which America’s top secrets are turning up in the offices, homes, and Floridian nightclubs-turned-influence peddling operations of our nation’s top officials. 

The circle of high-ranking public figures entangled in document mishandling snafus seems to widen by the week. House Republicans have been quick to heap blame on President Joe Biden for his own challenges in handling classified materials. Newly minted House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer (R-KY) demanded full access to the visitor logs for Biden’s home. Texas Senator and longtime scumbag Ted Cruz took things a step further, calling not only for Feds to search the University of Delaware, but Hunter Biden’s home as well.

It was inevitable that the GOP would snap up the opportunity to divert media attention away from the classified documents scandal currently hamstringing its most visible figure, former President Donald Trump. But by once again choosing partisanship over governance, Republicans leave the real question unanswered: How is America’s multi-billion-dollar intelligence apparatus losing so many documents?

Some situations are easier to answer than others. Trump famously helped himself to over 300 classified documents, including multiple boxes of top-secret foreign intelligence. At least, we think that’s how many there are; the Department of Justice is still concerned that the former president may have held onto some national security secrets even after the FBI raided his West Palm Beach compound last August. 

Trump’s strident claims that the government’s classified papers were actually his personal property rightfully drew national scorn and put the former president in acute legal peril. Worse for the nation, it highlighted just how easy it is to evade the national security panopticon Congress built in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. More than a year after the Department of Justice initiated its attempts to retrieve Trump’s stolen documents, it’s still unclear how many files he snatched in the first place.

But not every classified document that leaves the White House does so in the grubby hands of a thief. Last year alone, the federal government made over 50 million individual classification decisions, each bearing their own unique identification number and, at least in the White House, strictly controlled through access logs mandated by the Presidential Records Act. Yet a handful of documents recently unearthed in the homes of President Biden and former Vice-President Mike Pence are proving that, however strong our classification system looks on paper, it isn’t stopping state secrets from leaving the White House. 

Much of that infrastructure came into play as America dove headlong into the War on Terror, but increased security measures have always struggled against the malice or incompetence of government officials. Even former President Jimmy Carter, who signed the Presidential Records Act that put in place many of our oldest protocols around White House records, mistakenly hauled a few to his Georgia home after getting the boot in 1980. 

As it turns out, the White House itself may be one of the biggest hindrances to protecting classified material. 

“Classified and unclassified environments are not segregated in the West Wing,” says Brian Greer, a former CIA attorney who specialized in classification. “You have a more regular mixing of classified and unclassified conversations and paperwork happening in the same space.”

The West Wing’s flexibility creates a breeding ground for mistakes, even when White House staff undergo training in how to properly handle classified material. As Greer warns, “Accidents are more likely to happen in a mixed environment like this, especially in the chaotic final days of an administration.” 

That’s one problem a flood of federal money was supposed to prevent. At the end of the Obama administration, which classified more documents than any previous president, the federal government spent over $18 billion every year simply keeping track of sensitive materials. That included everything from storing documents in specialized secure systems or buildings to maintaining registries of where information traveled and whose eyes skimmed it. 

There’s just one minor oversight: for all of that spending, there’s no actual formal process for screening the papers and mementos former presidents and vice presidents pack up for the long journey home. That’s in part due to their unique role at the pinnacle of the federal government. It’s also because, as Trump has shown, our federal security protocols harbor some dangerously naive ideas about the good intentions of vanquished leaders. But even in situations where mishandling is accidental, such scandals could easily have been avoided with a routine vetting of the vice presidential U-Haul.

Oversights like that are how the National Archives (and presumably the White House itself) had no idea that classified intelligence was even missing until lawyers representing Biden and Pence voluntarily informed the government of what they had found. For $18 billion per year, the American people are right to be upset that the guardians of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence are taking a pretty laid-back approach to doing their jobs.

Unsurprisingly, how the White House handled classified material got even worse during the Trump administration. According to NBC News, former Trump officials admit the process “unraveled somewhat” due to Trump’s own animosity for rules and the incompetence of his staff. But Donald Trump didn’t break the classification system. He simply revealed just how outmoded and ineffective it already was. 

A big part of that is the White House’s commitment to maintaining paper records even as secure, encrypted digital storage grows ever more advanced. As Greer notes, digital records are easier to track than their paper counterparts, and access logs are easier to maintain on digital records stored on a single secured computer. That step alone would reduce the risk of mishandling classified data: It’s tougher for an intelligence briefing on Iran to end up in a former Vice President’s home when it’s only accessible from a single point in the White House. 

Lawmakers from both parties are more than happy to air their complaints about a classification system they describe as broken and ineffectual, as long as it doesn’t require actually putting any money behind efforts to improve it. 

“Look, obviously there is a systemic problem in the executive branch. Talking about two successive administrations from two different parties with officials at the top level having in their possession documents in places where they don’t belong,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told NBC News earlier this week. But when I reached out to Rubio’s office to ask whether the recent scandals made him more skeptical of how our government is using the billions already allocated to protect classified materials, no one wanted to chat.

Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t eager to talk about these kinds of solutions, mostly because those changes involve spending money at a time when the post-Trump GOP has returned to the language of small-government and spending cuts. I contacted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office to ask if modernizing and improving the handling of classified intelligence was on Republicans’ list of budget priorities. No one got back to me. 

Instead, Republicans have been exploiting Biden’s and Pence’s admissions as a way to claim what Trump did isn’t actually that bad. There are just too many classified documents, they argue, with too few actually meriting the label. It’s worth noting that they haven’t applied that same rule to Biden’s own stack of classified material. Instead of offering a real solution, Republicans are busy pumping up another bad-faith smokescreen to try and excuse a corrupt public official and a broken system.

“Overclassification … likely has little to do with the present situation,” Greer argues. “Presidents and vice-presidents receive the latest, most sensitive intelligence, and most of the records that were inadvertently retained are likely properly classified, even under a reformed regime.  This issue stems from improper handling and storage practices, not overclassification.”

Let’s be clear: There is a chasm of difference between the knowing theft of classified materials and their inadvertent inclusion in the frenetic rush of a presidential transition. Republicans know that. So do the American people. But that doesn’t change the fact that what we are witnessing is not just a failure of individuals, but a systemic failure of our government’s ability to reliably secure its own highly sensitive intelligence. 

Until Congress is willing to address that scandal, Attorney General Merrick Garland will have his hands full finding enough Special Counsels to keep up with the steady flow of improperly handled documents. This should be a consensus issue. Unfortunately, under all administrations, the White House’s failure to control its own information forces the architects of our national security state to reflect candidly upon their own policy failures. Good luck.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!