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Mishandling of classified documents happens more than you might think

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. government generates millions of classified documents each year.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we've been learning just how difficult it can be to keep track of all that sensitive material, even at the White House.

MARTÍNEZ: To find out how the wider government handles these records, we've called on NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, President Biden and former President Trump are both under investigation for the way they've handled classified material. Are the rules at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue different than other parts of the government?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, generally they're the same, but they do differ in one significant way. When presidents leave office, they have to turn over all government records, including the classified material, to the National Archives. And this isn't the case for other government agencies. They keep those records at their offices so they can continue to use them. So a classified document at the CIA can be kept in the same filing cabinet for years. But at the White House, it has to be packed up and moved when an administration changes. And so this could make it vulnerable to some sort of mishandling.

MARTÍNEZ: And the cases involving the current and former president are focused on paper documents. Greg, it's the 21st century. I mean, why aren't classified documents digital?

MYRE: Well, most are now electronic, but some are still printed. Let's just consider one important document, the president's daily brief. It's been printed and put between a leather-bound covers for decades, and it still is. Now, President Obama was the first and only president to take it on an iPad, but other presidents still prefer to get a physical version accompanied by an actual briefer. And as a rule, paper documents are easier to mishandle, even by national security professionals. I spoke about this with retired CIA officer Larry Pfeiffer. He also served at the White House, where he ran the Situation Room when Barack Obama was president and Joe Biden was vice president.

LARRY PFEIFFER: There's this level of human frailty here that just plays into this situation. And I've known several people who have retired, and after they retire, they're going through their box, and it's like, whoa, how did that get in here? And they - you know, they call back to the building. Some security officer comes out, picks it up. Everybody's fine with it.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like there's more classified material out there. No one - and no one knows about it.

MYRE: Yeah, that's undoubtedly true. And here's the irony. If you're a junior staffer, the likelihood of mishandling classified records is pretty low. To see that kind of information, you'd go into a secure room at your agency. You'd walk in empty-handed. You get briefed and read some classified documents. Then you walk out empty-handed. You really can't accidentally walk off with documents. But it's easier to make that mistake at the top levels of government. Here's Glenn Gerstell, former legal counsel at the National Security Agency.

GLENN GERSTELL: An official, usually a more senior official who has both unclassified and classified documents in their workspace on their desk. I know of one case where someone had a three-ring binder, and the first 30 or 40 pages were all unclassified, and they didn't realize that in the back was an appendix that had a classified document.

MARTÍNEZ: Always got to go all the way to the back. We've been talking about accidents, Greg. What about cases where government officials are intentionally trying to pass on sensitive stuff?

MYRE: Well, for starters, it would be a crime if someone in the government hands over classified material to, say, a foreign government. And if a person doesn't want to get caught, they'd probably share that material verbally, not passing on a physical document or an electronic record. That creates a trail. We've seen increased prosecutions in recent years. The key reason is technology, which means better forensics.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.