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Your local library could track classified documents better than Washington is

MSNBC 1/27/2023 Frank Figliuzzi
Photo illustration: Scattered paper folders with the stamp that reads,"Classified". © Provided by MSNBC Photo illustration: Scattered paper folders with the stamp that reads,"Classified".

Last week, classified materials were found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home. Of course, that discovery followed the discoveries of classified documents at President Joe Biden’s vacated office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and at his Delaware residence. And those two cases came after the FBI executed a search warrant to retrieve documents from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida. Also, in December, Trump’s attorneys reportedly found two documents with classified markings at a storage unit in West Palm Beach.

We track local library books better than we manage classified White House documents. It’s time to do something about that.

According to The Washington Post, the sloppiness of record management over even some of the most sensitive intelligence in our government and at the highest levels of government has led the National Archives to ask all past U.S. presidents and vice presidents to search for documents in their personal homes and offices.

Presumably, past leaders including former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle will be looking for more than loose coins under their sofa cushions. Political cartoonists and late night comedians are having a field day mocking the lunacy of all of this. And they should. Because there’s a better way to do things than have classified information printed on paper and passed around. And there’s a better way to do things than have the National Archives get involved with document management only at the end of an administration.

The Justice Department is understandably focused on addressing and resolving each of these matters, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed special counsels for both the Trump and the Biden cases. And, with good reason, the media is emphasizing the differences between the details of the Trump investigation and the Biden and Pence facts. But the bigger issue here is the need for the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, to step up, do its job and implement a plan to stop this from happening on the front end.

Reportedly, in the frenetic final weeks and days of an administration, staff members, such as then-Vice President Biden’s executive assistant, help their bosses pack up personal records and belongings, and hope to God that they haven’t mistakenly intermingled sensitive papers among family photos and state dinner menus. They do all this while they’re also trying to clear out their own offices and looking for new jobs.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Neil Eggleston, former President Barack Obama’s White House counsel for the final two years of that administration, described a process of aides and assistants gathering up hard copy and electronic official documents and forwarding them to NARA, while separating that from personal records the departing official is allowed to keep. The goal, Eggleston explained, is to leave not one piece of paper for the incoming administration.

All of this presumes that people are trying to comply with the rules, and even then, apparently, they get it wrong. It gets worse when, as in Trump’s case, there was a culture of noncompliance and of flouting of the rules. Reports of Trump’s treatment of official records during his tenure include accounts of him hauling boxes of documents aboard Air Force One and exposing those papers to reporters and other passengers. An email reported by The Washington Post shows that NARA asked the Trump White House to return presidential records squirreled away in boxes in the residential area of the White House.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone — prior to Trump’s departure — reportedly agreed with NARA that those records had to be returned. A NARA official wrote to Trump’s lawyers in May 2021, according to the Post, “It is also our understanding that roughly two dozen boxes of original presidential records were kept in the Residence of the White House over the course of President Trump’s last year in office and have not been transferred to NARA, despite a determination by Pat Cipollone in the final days of the administration that they need to be.” But that apparently didn’t happen. This is to say that any solution for mishandling of documents must work for both the well-intentioned and the malfeasant.

First, the continued use of hard copy classified documents isn’t just sloppy, it’s Neanderthal. For years now, most of the intelligence community has stored and reviewed classified material on highly encrypted electronic devices, including PCs and portable tablets. The days of intelligence officials hand-carrying paper documents in locked diplomatic pouches to meetings around Washington — or around the world — are waning. Certainly, presidents and vice presidents have a need to work on sensitive matters after hours and on weekends — and even in their private homes — but there is little, if any, need for that work to include paper. It’s time for our highest elected officials to go high-tech.

Second, whether it’s an encrypted, electronically tracked device or paper documents, there must be a signature-required record management system that tracks the time an official was delivered a document, accessed the document and returned the document. If my local library can send me emails demanding I return an overdue book, then the White House can track when a president or vice president handles classified material.

But not even that system accounts for an official who isn’t playing by the rules or is able to obtain a hard copy and walks off with it. A noncareer employee who is part of a president’s team and beholden to that president is more likely to acquiesce to demands, and would certainly be less likely to report their boss. That’s why it’s time for NARA to embed an executive-level employee at the White House to manage official records.

Currently, under the Presidential Records Act, incumbent presidents are solely responsible for the custody and management of the records of their administration while in office. NARA has no formal role in how incumbent presidents manage their records, except when the president wants to dispose of records. Ironically, according to the NARA website, that same law, passed by Congress in 1978, states that “any records created or received by the President as part of his constitutional, statutory, or ceremonial duties are the property of the United States government and will be managed by NARA,” but here's the catch: only at the end of the administration.

The Presidential Records Act makes no sense. If the records are the property of the United States, NARA should manage them not only at the tail end of an administration, but during a president’s term as well. Congress needs to acknowledge that the law it passed isn’t working for the folks who really own those documents: the American people.

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