Experts: Handling of presidential documents leaves room for error

After classified documents of President Biden's were found in an insecure location, experts have highlighted problems with government processing.
Posted at 8:29 PM, Jan 13, 2023

The process for sorting and archiving White House documents at the end of an administration is a massive undertaking — one that experts say has lots of room for error.

Any piece of paper that a president or top government official writes on or handles is supposed to be kept by the National Archives.  

"It could be something as simple as a napkin doodle that Barack Obama made when he was a little bored in the middle of a meeting," said Larry Pfeiffer, director of The Michael Hayden Center for Intelligence Policy and International Security.

There is a permanent office at the White House dedicated to maintaining and organizing documents for the archives. But Pfeiffer, who served as senior director of the White House situation room under President Obama, says political staff can take months to clean out out filing cabinets at the end of an administration.

"I worry that the records management aspect of the job tends to take a little bit lower priority, tends to get a little bit rushed, you know. We're all humans," Pfeiffer said.

Source: Biden team finds more docs with classified markings

Source: Biden team finds more docs with classified markings

A person who spoke to the Associated Press anonymously said the president's legal team found additional classified material at a second location.


Now as mishandled classified documents have come to light from two administrations, experts say it's time to review the often overlooked protocols for handling sensitive information.

White House staff do receive some training on how to handle documents, but Pfeiffer says training should be more comprehensive and repeated annually. He’s also calling for an independent review of the departure procedures that outline what should happen when an official is leaving office.

Experts say another issue is the classification system itself. 

"When you have national security professionals that know that there are documents that are classified that don't necessarily need to be classified, it can lead to a more lax approach to these rules that really are designed to be followed to the tee," said Liz Hempowicz, vice president of policy and government affairs at Project on Government Oversight.

Until more changes are made, this might not be the last time secret documents are discovered in unsecure places.

"I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow President Obama or President Bush or Vice President Cheney or Vice President Pence ordered staffs to do a thorough research and review of their storage spaces," Pfeiffer said. "Would I be shocked if one or two documents popped up? No, I would not, given what's happened."

Biden 'surprised' government records were found at old office

Biden 'surprised' government records were found at old office

The Department of Justice is reviewing “a small number of documents with classified markings" found at President Biden's previous office.