As former Vice President Mike Pence joined the club of top officials mishandling classified documents, U.S. presidents and vice presidents going all the way back to Jimmy Carter, the oldest living former commander in chief, must now respond to public scrutiny on whether they followed procedure in returning classified material upon leaving office.
Representatives of the 39th U.S. president, who served from 1977 to 1981, said he did.
“Though President Carter was not bound by the Presidential Records Act, which took effect after his presidency, he nevertheless voluntarily donated his documents and records to the National Archives after he left office and directed his team to work closely with the National Archives on their transfer,” a spokesperson said in an email response to VOA.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 governs the official records of presidents and vice presidents after January 1981 and transfers the legal ownership of those records from private to public under the management of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The Carter Center did not deny reporting by The Associated Press that classified materials were found at the president’s home in Plains, Georgia, on at least one occasion and were returned to NARA.
“It could happen,” Matthew De Galan, Carter Center vice president of communications, told VOA. “If it happened, it's a normal thing — you find a classified document, you turn it in.”
But no one currently working at the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum remembers the president finding classified materials at his home, De Galan added.
Representatives of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama responded similarly to VOA’s query, saying the presidents returned materials to NARA at the end of their terms and no additional searches are being conducted. Obama’s office points to NARA statements in September that refute media reports that boxes of presidential records were missing from the Obama administration when NARA moved them at the end of his term.
Lawyers for Pence said a "small number" of classified documents were found at his home in Indiana last week. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are under separate special counsel investigations looking into their respective mishandling of classified documents.
Much is still unknown about how, when and why these materials were not appropriately handled. However, many former officials and experts say the problem is widespread.
“There are several million people at any given time who hold a security clearance and have access to classified information,” Mark Zaid, an attorney focusing on national security law, told VOA. “Individuals leave federal service and just mistakenly bring documents home that are classified, and they don't even realize that for years.”
Classified documents may also get misplaced during a presidential transition, where there is a massive move of records, including the physical transfer of hundreds of millions of textual, electronic and audiovisual records and artifacts from the White House to an outgoing president’s future library.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, said in a tweet that it is likely every president and vice president in recent history “accidentally left with classified documents because of packing mess at transition times.”
Still, some lawmakers are livid.
“We have an epidemic of senior leaders taking classified [documents] home. And we have to say categorically, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, it’s all wrong,” Republican Representative Don Bacon said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It shows carelessness, negligence, and I think Americans should be mad," he added, throwing his support behind a special counsel investigation on Pence similar to those investigating Trump and Biden.
White House officials maintain that Biden and his aides take treatment of classified materials seriously.
“The National Security Council staff, we deal with classified material every single day. You have to do that,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the NSC, said during a briefing to reporters on Wednesday. “We all know what the rules are. We follow the rules. And the procedures exist for a reason.”
Public trust in elected officials is already at a historic low, with only 20% of Americans saying they trust the government in Washington to do what is right, according to a Pew Research poll.
“Most people think that the government does a pretty good job with national security,” Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M University, told VOA. “These classified document scandals could affect how the public sees the government's ability to guarantee safety.”
Some observers say that while officials must deal with classified materials more carefully, the U.S. government system suffers from rampant overclassification.
“Many millions of documents are classified each year, most of which do not contain any real secrets but are classified for political purposes,” said Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University who has written about reforming the U.S. classification system. “Until such reform is realized, the American people have a reason to distrust the classification system.”
As part of his Open Government Initiative, Obama signed an executive order mandating that the government cannot classify a document if “significant doubt” exists about the need to hide it.
Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, argues that the order doesn’t go far enough. She said officials overuse “Secret” and “Top Secret” stamps, keeping many documents that should be public from becoming available.
Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.