In recent months, the protection of classified material has been a prominent topic in the media. Following a DOJ probe into the matter, on June 8th, 2023, Trump was indicted by the Florida Grand Jury for the alleged mishandling of classified documents. These serious accusations have prompted questions regarding existing policies and legislation aimed at protecting our country against security threats, as well as questions regarding how well the existing policies and laws are protecting our nation’s most sensitive secrets. This blog examines the current legislation that governs the classification, handling, storage, and protection of classified information, and how the current system lacks sufficient rigor to prevent persons with ill intent from exploiting the weaknesses in the system. Finally, there will be a review of the current, proposed legislation that is intended to tighten up the classification system and prevent a repeat of serious security threats that have recently come to light.
Presidential administrations and the repeated mishandling of classified information
The day Trump ceased to be president on January 20, 2021, he left the White House with “scores of boxes” of classified materials of which he was not authorized to have. The documents, many of which contained extremely sensitive national security information, were then stored in several areas around his Mar-a-Lago estate, including, but not limited to, a ballroom, a bedroom, and a shower. Since the Trump indictment, the laws and regulations governing the protection of classified information have never faced such intense scrutiny and public attention. However, the mishandling of classified documents by government officials is far from a novel occurrence. In fact, according to NARA officials, every presidential administration since Reagan’s has mishandled classified documents.
As detailed in a 2012 report submitted to Obama by the Public Interest Declassification Board, the challenges plaguing the classification and declassification system in 2012 closely mirror the issues of today. The report identifies familiar themes including an overall lack of security and accountability, a system that is overwhelmed and burdened by the sheer volume of documents, and outdated IT systems. This is a strong indication that the regulations and the systems that govern and protect the classification system and documents were not sufficient to deter persons seeking to exploit the weaknesses of the regulations. Furthermore, these weaknesses in the system have been known for years.
Background Information: Regulatory framework for classification, declassification, and document security in the US
The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO ) within NARA sets the standards regarding the classification and declassification of information, but has a special focus on the handling, storage, and distribution of such materials. Additionally, numerous executive orders and congressional acts delineate standards for the classification and declassification of documents, such as Executive Order 13,526 and the Presidential Records Act (PRA). The former of which Trump, in his Grand Jury indictment, has been accused of violating. Additionally, each agency that classifies information has the responsibility for that document’s safekeeping. Not only are they required to establish ways in which to control the distribution of the classified information, but are also responsible for making sure the documents stay on the premises of the controlling agency. In the Trump case, he is accused of removing classified documents from secure locations refusing to return them upon request, and holding them in areas that are outside of a secure facility– all violations of the ISOO and PRA.
Bipartisan efforts in security classification reform
This May, Senators Warner (D-VA), Cornyn (R-TX), Wyden (D-OR), and Moran (R-KS) introduced two new bills aiming to reform the security classification system. The Classification Reform Act of 2023 sets out to, “establish a new system of governance and accountability for the security classification system,” by revamping declassification standards and creating a mandatory security review of documents that are removed from secure facilities, among other significant measures. The Sensible Classification Act of 2023 shares a parallel objective of efficiently declassifying documents, investing in technology to advance this purpose, and reviewing existing security clearances. In an era marked by political polarization, a bipartisan bill serves as a clear signal to the public about the gravity of mishandling classified documents, emphasizing that this problem transcends partisan divisions.
Undoubtedly, this spotlight on the careless handling of classified documents necessitated a thorough review of the protocols, systems, and cataloging processes. For the sake of the nation’s security, it is well past time to ensure that our nation’s secrets are well protected.