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US system for handling classified documents is down, say lawmakers and former officials

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The US government’s system for labeling and tracking classified documents appears to be down, with potentially serious consequences for the country’s national security, lawmakers, former officials and academics said Tuesday.

The news that classified documents have been found at the private home of former Vice President Mike Pence marks the latest in a series of revelations involving both the Trump and Obama administrations, raising questions about how the government qualifies secrecy documents and how he handles those documents, including after the departure of a president.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers said there was a “systemic failure” if the Obama and Trump administrations could not track classified documents after their terms ended.

“What’s going on here is my reaction,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the most Republican on the intelligence committee. “Look, obviously there is a systemic problem within the executive. Talk about two successive administrations of two different parties with officials at the highest level having documents in their possession in places where they do not belong.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., Said, “No one is above the law. I don’t know how someone ends up with classified documents. Everyone should explain how they end up with classified documents.

Aides and officials tasked with ensuring secret documents are still in a “chain of custody” appear to be failing the job, said intelligence expert Loch Johnson, emeritus professor of public and international affairs at the University. of Georgia. .

“It’s their job to make sure these busy decision-makers understand the importance of classification and put the documents in their place,” said Johnson, who was a congressional aide on intelligence committees and advised administrations. precedents on intelligence matters.

“There’s an incredible amount of negligence in the handling of these documents, which is really quite disconcerting,” Johnson said. “We need tough penalties for people in the chain of custody who don’t take their jobs seriously enough.”

White House staffers are supposed to log each classified document, assign it a number, and keep track of it so the document can be accounted for at any time. Former officials say the process has crumbled somewhat under the Trump administration, due to the habits of the president and some inexperienced staffers. But supporters of the former president have denied this portrayal.

In Congress, lawmakers and staffers with clearances must follow strict rules and view documents in secure rooms.

“When I read a document, I have to sign it and I have to return it before I leave,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“What needs to be looked at is the whole nature of what is classified and what is not, and under what circumstances.”

US system for handling classified documents is down, say lawmakers and former officials

“But until that happens,” he said, “it should be such that they are kept in places that do not create any risk to national interests or security.”

Elizabeth Goitein, a national security law expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University Law School think tank, said the root of the problem is the sheer volume of documents stamped secret, overwhelming the White House and the federal government. agencies trying to make decisions and govern.

“You have 50 million classification decisions every year, 90% of which are probably unnecessary. That’s a lot of rules that need to be followed every hour of every day. And some of that will slip,” said Goitein, a leading expert on overclassification.

Presidential transitions, especially hasty transitions, can compound the challenge of managing sensitive government documents, she said.

“I think the chain of custody becomes much more problematic in the context of a presidential transition. That may be part of what we see here, especially when those transitions are rushed,” Goitein said.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a former chairman of the intelligence committee, told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell that “there also has to be a vision of what happens when people leave this office, the presidency and the vice president. presidency”.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said the fallout from the failure to track secret documents has disturbing ramifications for national security.

US system for handling classified documents is down, say lawmakers and former officials

“We clearly don’t have an effective management system to monitor where classified documents go and how they are retrieved,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “And look, negligence doesn’t look good on a president or vice president, current or past, and it’s an embarrassment to us, and it’s a potential threat to national security.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, DR.I., said the executive branch has sometimes abused the power to classify and declassify documents. Executive branch officials will strategically declassify certain documents, for example, when it gives them the upper hand to deal with congressional oversight, Whitehouse said.

In such cases, he said, “the legislature is unable to respond in kind, as the rebuttal is classified.”

“Perhaps one good thing that comes out of this mess is that we are conducting a review of what is clearly a flawed process and is often used for strategic advantage against legislative oversight,” Whitehouse said.

US system for handling classified documents is down, say lawmakers and former officials

Goitein and others said recent discoveries of classified documents presented a political opportunity for the White House, and possibly Congress, to finally address the issue.

For decades, current and former officials and Congress have warned of the growing problem of labeling too much secret information, or “overclassification.”

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission report, which examined how the federal government failed to heed danger signs prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks, warned that “current security requirements favor overclassification.”

Successive presidents have issued executive orders to try to curb this practice, as well as to expedite the declassification of older documents. But material related to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco wasn’t declassified until more than 50 years later. Some documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 have only recently been released, and others remain classified.

“There is classified, and then there is classified“Said former President Barack Obama in 2016. “There are things that are really top secret, and there are things that are presented to the President or the Secretary of State that you might not want see on the transom or exit on the wire. but that’s basically stuff you could get open source.

US system for handling classified documents is down, say lawmakers and former officials

Goitein and others have proposed standardizing and simplifying classification rules and limiting the discretion of those making classification judgments. Goitein called for the introduction of penalties for officials who unnecessarily label secret documents. Right now, the main motivation of the federal bureaucracy is to label information as secret, experts said.

Critics of the classification system have long argued that by labeling an unmanageable amount of information as secret, the government could ultimately jeopardize real secrets that need to be protected.

In 1997, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, DN.Y., oversaw a bipartisan report recommending reducing secrecy in government while ensuring the protection of sensitive information vital to the country’s national security.

“The best way to ensure that secrecy is respected, and that the most important secrets remain secret, is for secrecy to regain its limited but necessary role,” the report said. “Secrets can be protected more effectively if secrecy is reduced overall.”

Moynihan’s recommendations were not adopted.

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