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Testimony: Every administration since Reagan mishandled documents

Classified documents were found at former President Trump's estate, but testimony revealed that presidential record-keeping has long been an issue.
Testimony: Every administration since Reagan mishandled documents
Posted at 7:50 AM, May 18, 2023

In testimony to Congress, National Archives Chief Operating Officer William Bosanko said that every administration since President Ronald Reagan has mishandled classified documents. 

His testimony came after officials found classified documents at the residences of former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence. Classified documents were also found at President Biden’s Delaware residence from his time as President Barack Obama’s vice president. 

Federal officials raided Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in order to secure classified documents. 

In his March 1 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, which was declassified on Wednesday with some redactions, Bosanko said that documents prior to the Obama administration would go to various presidential libraries to be stored. Since then, presidential documents are meant to be stored at a facility managed by National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

“I have currently started a process to bring all the classified from the presidential libraries to the Washington, D.C., area,” Bosanko said. “It is better from a safeguarding perspective. It is more efficient and effective for declassification. So building (sensitive compartmented information facilities) all over the United States is not a sustainable model for us.”

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Mark Bradley, director of the National Archives information security oversight office, said it is not just presidents and vice presidents leaving office with classified documents. 

“Since about 2010, we have gotten over 80 calls from different libraries where mostly Members of Congress have taken papers and deposited them in libraries for collections, their own papers,” Bradley said. “When these records are being processed, librarians know to call us. We dispatch a team to go retrieve them and bring them back to Washington.”

Committee Chair Mike Turner acknowledged that the issue of mishandling classified documents goes beyond the White House. 

“Testimony from the National Archives and records administration officials makes clear that the handling and mishandling of classified documents are a problem that stretches beyond the Oval Office,” Turner said. “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.”

Bosakno acknowledged that when one-term presidents leave office, the process of transferring documents from the White House to the National Archives can be more chaotic. 

“If it is a second-term transfer, they have known for four years that the date is coming, and everybody has kind of rolled up their sleeves earlier in the process to prepare for transfer,” he said. “When it is a one-term, it is usually a hurry-up. You are going from November, the loss of an election, to a January transfer date.”

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Bosakno said that there were some indications items from the Trump administration were missing. 

“If a president of the United States says today I signed or I receive or something is covered in the press, they know, hey, that is going to be — you know, a classic example is one president leaving a letter in a desk for the next president. It is something that they make reference to. Everybody knows it is there. They are looking for it because of the historical significance. So they are keeping a running list of things that kind of flow through that office,” he said. 

He said that there were multiple highly visible documents not among those transferred to the National Archives following Trump’s term. 

“The letter that President Obama had left for President Trump. The correspondence with the leader of North Korea. There was a whole list of items that we were telling them, the administration, hey, that we don't have this. It must exist somewhere.”

“These were very obvious things that, given our role as the nation's record keeper, we went back very informally to representatives of the former president and said, ‘Might you have these?’” Bosakno added.

A special counsel has been appointed by the Department of Justice to oversee investigations into the mishandling of classified documents between Biden, Pence and Trump. Pence and Biden have said they have cooperated with investigators. Trump has claimed that by removing the documents from the White House, the documents automatically became declassified. 

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