As more questions arise from the discoveries of government documents found in President Joe Biden’s offices and home, elected officials and government watchdog groups are expressing concerns about the security of important documents.
The latest news comes months after it was revealed that former President Donald Trump had several boxes of top-secret government documents at his Mar-a-Lago ranch last summer.
John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, spoke with “Start Here” Monday about the probe and how government documents are handled.
START HERE: John, I should point out you were acting under President Biden, you resigned last spring when Biden’s full-time pick was about to be confirmed…but you know this space very well. How do documents like this just keep popping up?
JOHN COHEN: I worked in the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and, as you pointed out, the Biden administration, and I had security clearances. I had broad access to classified information. In fact, during some of that time, I also was in charge of offices that conducted security investigations or worked to safeguard classified information. And unless you are working in an organization like the CIA or another intelligence community organization, where all you’re working with is classified information, and these types of security violations are not really that uncommon when you are working with large quantities of documents and you are co-mingling classified reports with unclassified documents. It is not uncommon for there to be situations where, inadvertently, people will mix them together and walk out of a SCIF or secured facility with a document they shouldn’t have. And when that happens, there is a very well-established process known as a security investigation.
And with a security investigation, we’ll look at real quickly: How sensitive were the documents? Were they clearly marked? How were they mishandled? Meaning, was it an accident or was it inadvertently inadvertent or was it intentional if it was intentional? The investigation will then try to determine was that intentional mishandling for nefarious purposes. We’ve had situations where people remove classified information because they were writing a book. In other cases, people remove classified information because they intend to give it to a foreign adversary. The latter obviously being much more serious. So all of that is pretty customary when looking at a security violation or an instance where there’s been mishandling of classified information.
START HERE: Well, customary seems like the weird word, though. You mentioned a SCIF, which are these like secure locations. So are those documents always supposed to be viewed in those secure locations, or is it allowable for a public official to take those home, maybe to an unsecured house or a garage or whatever and look them over there? What are the protocols with the classified stuff specifically?
COHEN: The short answer is, it depends. There are various grades of classified information. Some of it requiring much more stringent handling processes. And there’s other classified information where you can lock it up in a desk. It is not uncommon for individuals with classified information, if they have the right storage in their homes, to be able to take classified information at home. Some people actually have SCIFs built into their homes if they have appropriate permission. So what we don’t know from some of the breathless reporting that we’ve heard thus far is what were these documents that were discovered in the garage, in the Biden residence and in the office? Were they confidential, which really, from a national security perspective, really wouldn’t be that significant.
Most of the security enforcement of the protocols that have to do with protecting and safeguarding that material is on the honor system. Meaning typically the only way that the security officer would know that someone walked out of the office with it – with a top secret or a secret document – is because the person who did it reported it.
START HERE: Oh, there’s no, like, sign out system of, ‘Hey, Hey, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, you had this in your office. You need to sign this out while you take it home.’ That doesn’t exist.
COHEN: There is a very small subset of classified information that there is a sign-in and sign-out process. But for the overwhelming majority of confidential, secret, [and] top secret information, there is not that type of tracking system.
START HERE: Is that a problem, John, from your perspective as somebody who’s led these investigations? Does that need to be revamped or are we cool with that?
COHEN: I think it’s a huge problem. This is why we tend to have so many issues. But think of it this way: There are literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people across the federal government and outside of the federal government with security clearances.
The government over the last five, six, seven years has made strides in identifying behavior that could be suspicious on these government systems. So, for example, if you are working at an intelligence organization and your job is to analyze intelligence on Russia, but the computer system flags you because you’re downloading and printing a lot of intelligence on terrorist organizations, that may result in some type of review. But this idea that every classified paper document is being tracked? That’s just not how the system works.
Think of it this way: I don’t know what your desk is like, but mine’s pretty messy. And when I was working in some of my offices, I would have stacks of paper that were unclassified, stacks of paper that were classified, and I literally had a staff person who every day looked to see what was going into my briefcase to make sure that I didn’t accidentally miss a classified piece of information and accidentally bring it home.
START HERE: And I was about to say who touches these documents is also a thing, right? Because I imagine President Biden is not the one moving his cardboard boxes around when he leaves his job as VP.
COHEN: No, and that’s going to be a huge part of this security review is who actually packed those boxes, you know, were there cover sheets on this information? I’ve heard some reports that said that these were individual pages. Well, were those pages marked? Did they say top secret or classified? On top of it, Were they portion marked, meaning were there little marks in front of each paragraph that said they were classified?
You know we know that the documents in Mar-a-Lago had those cover sheets, right? Those brightly covered cover sheets with big letters stamped on it that said top secret, sensitive, [or] compartmented intelligence. But, we have not heard yet whether cover sheets were on the material found in the Biden home. So, there’s a lot to learn still. Security violations sound very, very nefarious, but in many cases, they’re just accidents.
In many cases, they’re people who were a little bit careless or maybe didn’t, weren’t as careful as they should be. And they accidentally mixed up some papers. They got packed in a box and they got stored away. And that will be another thing that will be looked at and is being looked at in the Mar-a-Lago case involving former President Trump as well is when those documents were secured at those locations who had access to it.
START HERE: You just talked about thousands or hundreds of thousands of documents floating around. I mean, Bush, Clinton, Carter, should they be checking their houses right now? How like how much of an issue do you think this is with other former presidents and vice presidents?
COHEN: I suspect that because of the visibility that the Biden case and the Trump case have generated, that you have a large number of former government officials, whether they be former presidents or others who are looking in their basement at boxes that they’ve stored there since the last government.
START HERE: Do you have boxes full of classified documents we should know about right now, John?
COHEN: Hey, Brad, when I left last time, I didn’t want to bring anything with me. The only thing I took was a bottle of wine that one of my staffers gave me. I left everything else there.