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Three Facts and a Fiction: Not-So-Secret Documents

What are the security impacts of Presidents Biden and Trump stashing classified documents at their homes?

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Documents seized by the FBI at former President Donald Trump's home in Florida.

Three Facts and a Fiction is a new This Week at AU feature.  

Jorhena Thomas has held government secrets in her hands.  

As an international terrorism intelligence analyst for the FBI from 2004 to 2012, she would view highly classified documents with a bright orange cover sheet in a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF. Thomas, now an adjunct professorial lecturer in the School of International Service, would then place the documents in a burn bag for incineration or in a special shredder before leaving the room. 

“It was drilled into us that you treat this very carefully, not cavalierly,” she said. 

Security protocols for top-secret documents have come under intense public scrutiny in recent months after they were discovered in the residences of each of the past two commanders in chief. The FBI found documents while executing a search warrant of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in August 2022, and now President Joe Biden has turned over classified documents from his time as vice president, which were found in his office and garage. 

Here, Thomas helps us get a handle on the handling of classified documents. 

Fact: Documents were discovered in the homes of both Trump and Biden, but the circumstances are different. 

With Trump, it seemed the classified information and documents were knowingly being held. They knew that they had them and, for whatever reason, they weren’t returning them to the National Archives even after the agency requested documents that the administration had. With Biden, it seems he wasn’t aware these documents from his tenure as vice president were among his personal effects. Once they were discovered, the Biden team willingly returned them. The situations are different, but one isn’t better than the other. Both demonstrate poor handling of classified information and undermine the trust that the American people have in their leaders.

Fact: Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed special counsels to investigate the handling of documents avoid a perception of political bias. 

A special counsel has no political loyalties to the administration. They’re free to follow where the facts lead. By making the appointments, people can’t legitimately say that the administration has strong-armed the investigation because the attorney general is a part of the executive branch. the special counsel helps with the perception of neutrality. Given the very politically charged nature, appointing a special counsel was prudent.

Fact: Biden admonished Trump for keeping classified documents on 60 Minutes in August.  

President Biden is not going to go to jail. He’s not going to get a fine. I don’t think he’s facing any serious legal trouble. It appears that he and his team were careless with these documents, which would be a crime for a rank-and-file government employee, but the damage for Biden will only be political. This gives Biden’s biggest opponents loads of fuel to remind him that he talked about the things President Trump did wrong and how he wasn’t presidential in handling documents. This was a political gift handed to his detractors. I think it’s going to pose a problem in the 2024 election. 

Fiction: The Justice Department can’t oversee an unbiased investigation. 

DOJ can absolutely conduct an apolitical investigation, but the appearance of clean hands is the most important thing for the public to see. I know people who work at the FBI pride themselves on being able to look at facts and just follow them. The facts are sometimes uncomfortable, but it doesn’t matter. You have a moral and ethical responsibility to go wherever the investigation leads, and that’s what the folks I know at the FBI have always done. 

Have an idea for 3 Facts and a Fiction? Email editor Jonathan Heeter.