On Nov. 2 2022, President Joe Biden’s legal team found classified documents at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. The approximately 10 documents contained material marked as sensitive from the president’s tenure as Obama’s vice president and prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint a special counsel to investigate the president’s handling of the classified documents. Biden and his personal lawyers have been “cooperating fully” with the Department of Justice’s investigation. On Jan. 16, about a week after the appointment of the special counsel, another series of classified documents were discovered at former Vice President Mike Pence’s home in Carmel, Ind. As of the writing of this article, a special counsel has not been assigned to investigate Pence’s classified materials; however, he publicly claimed “full responsibility” for the misplacing of the documents. A third investigation of classified documents in a public official’s personal residence predates the former two and involves former President Donald Trump. This situation is unique in that the response from Trump’s legal time was hostile and uncooperative: Trump spent 18 months obstructing and hindering the DOJ’s investigation.
The recurrence of the term “classified documents” in headlines for the last few months prompts the question: What makes a document classified? Each year, the U.S. federal government marks over 50 million documents as classified. These documents contain information that might be a threat to national security such as the location of weapons of mass destruction. Once flagged as classified, the documents may be subcategorized by levels based on how sensitive the classified information is. President Obama standardized the system of classifying documents in Executive Order 13526. However, a classification can be issued because of something as seemingly insignificant as an image, map or email. According to an NPR interview with historian Matthew Connelly, three documents are marked as classified every second. This surplus of classified information and documents suggest that the United States has an over-classification problem. One possible explanation for the problem is that the repercussions of under-classifying greatly outweigh those of over-classifying; in order to protect their employment and respective agencies, those tasked with classifying might opt to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately, there are some consequences to over-classification.
Misplacing classified documents is not a rare occurrence among government officials, and experts assert that the consequences of mishandling these documents tend to be political, not criminal. The Republican Party’s outrage regarding Biden’s classified documents juxtaposes with their loud silence in response to Pence’s classified documents. This contrast highlights the true motive behind keeping classified document scandals in the headlines: sensationalism.
The sensationalism of Biden and Pence’s mishandling of classified documents seems comparable to the controversy surrounding Hunter Biden’s laptop. Despite the lack of evidence of any relevant proof of wrongdoing, the Trump camp continually used the “laptop from hell” as a dog whistle. Rather than feeling concern over national security or leaking sensitive information, the government officials fixating on these situations seem to be belligerently trying to push their political agendas.
The bipartisan fascination with mishandling of classified documents appears to relate to
the importance of having an enemy to rally against in order to succeed in politics. White House counsel’s office spokesman Ian Sams told reporters in January that Republicans are “interested in making this political theater and political stunts” and “focusing on things that they did not focus on in previous circumstances.” This hypocrisy indicates that both classified documents scandals are more of a political bargaining chip than a national security threat. However, the fact that so many former government officials are finding classified information buried among their personal documents after leaving office indicates the need for a systemic change in how documents move from the White House to the National Archives after each administration. By first increasing the threshold for what makes a document classified and then streamlining the movement of records after each administration, the U.S. government could minimize the sensationalism of classified documents.