At least three presidents. Vice President, Secretary of State, Attorney General. The mishandling of classified documents is not only a problem for the president Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump.

The question of the secret tapes and who kept them became more complicated on Tuesday when news broke that former Vice President Mike Pence also had such records in his possession after he left office. Like Biden, Pence willingly turned them over to authorities after they were discovered during a search he requested, according to his lawyer and aides.

The revelations thrust the issue of whistleblowing — an otherwise tight-lipped Washington process — into the middle of political discourse and exposed an inconvenient truth: policies designed to control the handling of state secrets are run erratically among senior officials and rely almost entirely on good faith.

This issue has been around for decades, with presidents to cabinet members and administration staff reaching for Jimmy Carter. The issue took on greater importance after Trump deliberately kept classified material at his Florida estate, prompting the FBI’s unprecedented seizure of thousands of pages of documents last year.

Former officials at all levels of government are found to be in possession of classified material and turn it over to authorities at least a few times a year, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of classified documents.

Current and former officials involved in the handling of classified information say that while there are clear policies on how such information should be handled and stored, those policies sometimes deviate at the highest levels. The teams of national security officials, secretaries, and military aides who share the responsibility of briefing senior leaders—and the leaders themselves—may bend the rules for convenience, expediency, or sometimes carelessness.

This contrasts with the more rigid way of following procedures in the wider intelligence community, where the mishandling of information can be grounds for termination, revocation of security clearance or even prosecution.

“Managers go back and forth with documents and read them. They read them at night, they bring them back,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He contrasted that pattern for senior officials with senators, who are required to keep classified materials in secure Capitol facilities.

“I can see it happening,” he added. “But again, every situation is different. They are all very serious. So how much? How serious? How did you get them? Who had access to them? Do you cooperate? And the same set of questions need to be answered about Pence, President Biden, and President Trump.”

As for the court system, a separate federal law, the Classified Information Procedures Act, governs the handling of materials that come before judges in criminal and civil cases. Another law deals with foreign intelligence investigations, which are handled by a special court that operates under secrecy. Both laws aim to protect against disclosure of classified information.

While Trump intended to keep the documents — he claimed they were his personal property, in apparent disregard of the Presidential Documents Act — he was hardly the first president to mishandle classified information.

Former President Jimmy Carter at least once found classified materials at his home in Plains, Ga., and returned them to the National Archives, according to the same person who spoke about the regular mishandling of documents. The person did not provide details about the time of discovery.

A Carter Center aide would not elaborate when asked how Carter found the documents at his home after leaving office in 1981. It should be noted that Carter signed the Presidential Documents Act in 1978, but it did not cover his administration’s documents, taking effect years later when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Before Reagan, presidential records were generally considered the president’s personal property. However, Carter invited federal archivists to assist the White House in organizing his records in preparation for their final storage at his presidential library in Georgia.

The National Archives declined to comment when asked to provide a list of cases in which classified documents were turned over to the agency by former officials.

Meanwhile, other former senior US officials insist they have always handled classified material properly. A spokesman for former Vice President Dick Cheney said he did not leave office with classified material and it has not been disclosed since. Freddie Ford, former President George W. Bush’s press secretary, told the Associated Press that “all presidential documents — classified and unclassified — were turned over to NARA after leaving the White House,” referring to the National Archives and Records Administration.

A spokesman for President Barack Obama would not comment, but noted a 2022 statement from the National Archives that the agency had taken control of all of Obama’s papers after he left office and had “no knowledge of the missing boxes of presidential papers.” the Obama administration.” Former President Bill Clinton’s office said: “All of President Clinton’s classified materials have been properly turned over to NARA under the Presidential Records Act.”

The final days of any presidency are chaotic, as aides sift through years of material to determine what should be archived and what can be preserved. Different teams of individuals are responsible for cleaning different offices, and maintaining consistent standards can be a challenge, officials said.

In Pence’s case, the material found in the boxes came mostly from his official residence at the Naval Observatory, where military aides rather than full-time lawyers handled the packaging. Due to the sensitive nature of the find, other materials came from an office drawer in the West Wing, according to a Pence aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. The boxes were taped shut and believed not to have been opened since they were packed, the person said.

There were also allegations of mishandling of documents while officials were still on the job. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez took home highly classified documents related to the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance and interrogation program for terrorist detainees in the late 2000s. Hillary Clinton has been investigated for improperly handling classified information through a private email server she used as secretary of state.

But officials are rarely punished for these mistakes. That’s largely because, while federal law prevents anyone from storing classified documents in an unauthorized location, the mere fact that someone “knowingly” removed the documents from their proper location is a criminal prosecution.

Mishandled documents are often returned without much fanfare or national news. And there is no single reason why the records are mishandled, since the process of managing presidential records occurs amid the chaos of the end of a presidential term and is based largely on a good-faith agreement between the archives and the outgoing administration.

“The National Archives has historically operated under the honor system with every administration,” said Tim Naftali, the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “They work for the president and vice president and have partnerships with all these former presidents and vice presidents.”

The White House counsel’s office declined to comment Tuesday on whether Biden would order a review of the government’s handling of classified documents in response to the latest revelations.

The power to change or amend the procedure for handling classified documents rests primarily with the president. Biden, who is under active investigation, is unlikely to initiate a review or order any changes to the procedure because it could be seen as a political move to improve his own circumstances.


Associated Press writers Bill Barrow, Mark Sherman, Kevin Freking and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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