WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Archives has been called more than 80 times in the past decade-plus about classified materials found in the papers of former members of Congress and other U.S. officials, according to newly released congressional testimony.
That figure underscores the weaknesses in how the U.S. government tracks and safeguards its most important secrets.
Investigations are underway into the classified materials found in the holdings of former President Donald Trump and in later searches of files held by President Joe Biden before he won the White House and Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence.
Officials from the National Archives testified in March before the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the discoveries of those records and considering new legislation. The committee released the testimony on Wednesday.
Archives officials said most of the calls since 2010 came from libraries where former members of Congress donated their papers for future research. Edmund Muskie, a former Democratic senator from Maine and later secretary of state under former President Jimmy Carter, took 98 classified papers that were later found at Bates College, officials said. Muskie died in 1996.
Starting with former President Ronald Reagan, every administration has been found to have mixed classified and unclassified papers, said William J. Bosanko, the archives’ chief operating officer. Reagan left office in 1989 and died in 2004.
Government and outside experts have long warned the U.S. classifies too much information, does not declassify enough, and has no unified system to track breaches. A Massachusetts Air National Guard member is accused of having published hundreds of top-secret and sensitive Pentagon documents for weeks in online chatrooms, a breach that was not discovered until other users began sharing the documents across the Internet.
Bosanko told the committee that the National Archives has stored 555,000 cubic feet of classified national security information, which he roughly estimated as the size of 5 1/2 football fields.
Agencies often decide on their own what to share with the archives and when, Bosanko said. At the White House, he said, “essentially, each individual is serving as their own custodian with very limited oversight.”
“To me it is a symptom of a bigger problem, which is records management typically is the last thought,” he said.
Bosanko was asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., why the National Archives reached out to Trump officials about missing documents and not to Pence or Biden after their vice presidencies.
Bosanko replied that archives staff knew based on public reporting that Trump had not returned two examples of highly publicized documents: a letter he received from former President Barack Obama and correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Only when Trump officials sent boxes of files to the archives did staff discover classified information mixed in with other papers, Bosanko said.
“There isn’t document-level tracking in the executive branch in the White House Complex,” he testified. “So anybody’s ability to know that something has gone missing or astray is very limited.”
Rep. Mike Turner, the Ohio Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the U.S. has a “systemic problem.”
“We need a better way for elected officials who are leaving office – in both the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch – to properly return classified material and protect the integrity of our national security,” Turner said.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have introduced legislation targeting the recent breaches. Their bills propose that the National Archives be required to clear any documents a president wants to take as personal papers.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.