Memo to former US presidents and vice presidents: Check your files

Washington: The US National Archives has asked former presidents and vice presidents to recheck their personal records for any classified documents following the news that President Joe Biden, and former vice president Mike Pence had such documents in their possession, two people familiar with the matter said.

The Archives has sent a letter to representatives of former leaders extending back to Ronald Reagan to ensure compliance with the Presidential Records Act, according to the two people who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about investigations. The act states that any records created or received by the president are the property of the US government and will be managed by the archives at the end of the administration.

From left: Former US presidents George HW Bush, Barack Obama, George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office in 2009.Credit:AP

The Archives sent the letter to representatives for Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W Bush, Bill Clinton, George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan, and former vice presidents Pence, Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore and Dan Quayle, they said.

The letter was sent on Thursday and first reported by CNN.

Spokespeople for Trump, Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton, and Pence, Cheney, Al Gore and Quayle did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Biden’s lawyers came across classified documents from his time as vice president as they were packing up an office he no longer uses in November. The documents were found in a locked cabinet. Since then, subsequent searches by the FBI and Biden’s lawyers have turned up more documents. Pence, too, this week, discovered documents and turned them in after saying he did not believe he had any.

Secret documents were found in US President Joe Biden’s old office and at home.Credit:Bloomberg

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment but the searches by Biden’s lawyer’s and the FBI appear to fulfil the Archives’ request.

The Archives had no comment.

Handling of classified documents has been a problem off and on for decades, from presidents to cabinet members and staff across multiple administrations stretching as far back as Jimmy Carter. But the issue has taken on greater significance since Trump wilfully retained classified material at his Florida estate, prompting the unprecedented FBI seizure of thousands of pages of records last year.

Attorney-General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate Trump’s handling of the documents, and also Biden’s.

Contained in a court filing by the Justice Department and redacted in part by the FBI, this photo shows documents seized during the August search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.Credit:DoJ/AP

It turns out that officials from all levels of government discover they are in possession of classified material and turn it over to authorities at least several times a year, according to another person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of classified documents.

Current and former officials involved in the handling of classified information say that while there are clear policies for how such information should be reviewed and stored, those policies are sometimes pushed aside at the highest levels. Teams of national security officials, secretaries and military aides who share responsibility for keeping top-level executives informed – and the executives themselves – may bend the rules for convenience, expediency or sometimes simple carelessness.

The FBI raided former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property to retrieve documents sought by the Archives.Credit:AP

While much of the attention has been on classified information, the Presidential Records Act actually requires that, from the Reagan administration onward, all records must be transferred to the Archives regardless of classification.

It’s against federal law to have classified documents at an unauthorised location, but it’s only a crime if it was done intentionally.

Speaking on Thursday at an unrelated news conference, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that although he could not discuss any specific ongoing investigation, “We have had for quite a number of years any number of mishandling investigations. That is unfortunately a regular part of our counter-intelligence division’s and counter-intelligence program’s work.”

He said there was a need for people to be conscious of laws and rules governing the handling of classified information. “Those rules,” he said, “are there for a reason.”


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