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Why do some political figures, such as Trump, Biden, and Pence, store classified documents at their personal residences? I have seen many articles discussing the legality and contents of these documents, but I cannot seem to understand the purpose behind it. Is it to hide something? Do they simply take the documents out of their office in boxes concealed under their coat?

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    Welcome to Politics.SE! Please note that questions about the interval motivations of politicians (i.e. why they would store classified documents at their residences) are off-topic here. We can report what they claim to have been their reasons for doing this, but we can't read their minds to know what their true motives may have been, and we don't deal in speculation here.
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 25, 2023 at 13:14
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    You could make this a bit more on-topic by changing the question from "why" to "what went wrong" -- and how to fix it. A lot of people, including Democrats, Republicans, and security officials, are asking that very question. Unfortunately, this reworded question would probably also be closed on the basis of it being a current event. Jan 25, 2023 at 13:52
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    The objections commented seem more to the style and presentation than substance: is there any particular systemic reason this is so widespread? One podcast I saw, but didn't listen to, claims the US classifies too many documents. You might have insufficient chain of custody. You might have politicians holding an effective authority to browbeat underlings raising concerns. Insufficient education. Insufficient logistical support and over-complex security (thinking more email servers, insecure phones). Etc... Very timely question. Bit of cleanup needed? Maybe. Closure? Nah. Jan 25, 2023 at 20:55
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    Maybe reframe it as "Why would they have need to take them home?" I do agree that the underlying question is an on-topic and possibly-answerable one. Also, possibly a duplicate of: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/77704/…
    – Bobson
    Jan 25, 2023 at 21:04

8 Answers 8

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Because they have to work on them there.

Government leaders don't have a hard and fast line between work time and personal time like the rest of us. They have huge amounts of reading to do, and a whole pile of it is done when the rest of us are relaxing, in the evenings and the early mornings (unless you are the kind of President who watches cable TV and eats cheeseburgers all evening). In the UK and Canadian systems every high-ranking politician gets a big stack of boxes with stuff to read at home every night. I'm sure the US is no different. And most of the things they read are classified at some level. Some of it stays at the residence (or the non-government office). Likewise they are going to be taking documents on trips with them, and most of them will be classified. None of this is a problem while they are in office.

The problem is that not that they go to residences, or even that they stay there while the politician is in office, but that some of it gets misplaced and isn't removed at the end of the politician's term of office. This problem is worse because it's not only the officials handling these, it's also a good number of aides and assistants (again perfectly properly). In these quantities it only takes one mistake in a thousand to have a document accidentally stay in a place after the person supposed to be using it leaves office and you can get incidents like the ones we've seen with Joe Biden and Mike Pence.

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    "None of this is a problem while they are in office" -- but is it actually legal to take the documents home, or just a case where authorities routinely look the other way? See David Hammen's comment noting that highly classified documents must remain in specific secure facilities and cannot be removed.
    – nanoman
    Jan 26, 2023 at 3:23
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    @nanoman In the UK and Canada case I'm most familiar with it is not only legal it is required. Jan 26, 2023 at 6:15
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On second thought, this is a surprisingly interesting question. Here's my take on it:

First I think that people in such positions quickly lose respect for confidentiality. They keep reading stacks of papers every day, most of which is highly confidential. If we hold an envelope with top secret markings in our hands, we probably would be excited. For them it's just paper. I doubt they read much that does not carry a red stamp on it.

Next there is a common misconception in American politics regarding secrets and confidentiality. In operational security, the principle of least trust is necessary. Whatever is being said in the oval office should be confidential, because you can't perform continuous risk analysis and individually decide what should be kept from prying ears.

The problem is that on the other hand most of what is commonly treated as secret should be public knowledge. The secrecy of US politics and institutional operations is so pervasive that there is effectively no oversight or accountability while on the other hand the people have no privacy at all.

I can imagine, that as a president, vice-president or ex-president, you have little respect for confidential documents. However, I don't think that what we see with Biden is actually the same thing as what we saw Trump doing. From the looks, Biden broke the law out of disregard for the relevance of these documents. Trump seems to disregard the authority of the law over him. Not quite the same thing.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Jan 27, 2023 at 9:44
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    This! What is considerd 'top secret' is often some pretty trivial stuff that hardly feels worth protecting at times! There are higher compartments that are suppose to be more secure, but at the same time I suspect politicians don't really understand the various compartments and which are uber important and which aren't so that probably means little to them. I think the fact that they got their clearance by virtue of office without the same process beat into their head or same risk if they break it doesn't help, but mostly it's quite easy to not see these documents as that important.
    – dsollen
    Jan 27, 2023 at 15:44
  • I bet nearly everything they touch is classified. I work for the government and anything with an internal IP address on it is classified (Including many logfiles). Also we can (and do) take some levels of classified documents home, but they require a little special handling like locking them up when you aren't using them and ensuring they are returned or shredded when you are done. Also there are MANY levels of classification, generally requiring need to know as well. I doubt the president would ever be needing to bring work home that wasn't important enough to be classified.
    – Bill K
    Jan 28, 2023 at 0:42
  • @CDJB If not for discussion (what is extended seems to be difficult to judge), what are comments for then?
    – Michael
    Feb 19, 2023 at 18:13
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Here's the real answer: most classified documents are not particularly secret and contain no important confidential information.

As many media outlets have noted many years before the current scandal, the government routinely overclassifies documents. This means that a huge number of everyday documents that are not particularly special end up being classified, making it very easy to keep them among your other stacks of unimportant documents (say) in your Florida hotel and/or beside your Corvette.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Jan 26, 2023 at 23:46
  • I agree with you. Though the USA would argue they aren't over classifying. It's more that their qualifications for a document to be considered 'top secret' are low. Their staying true to those standards, it's just that the standard required to reach it is pretty trivial; much lower then what a layman would presume.
    – dsollen
    Jan 27, 2023 at 15:46
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    @dsollen It's also that the process for declassification is so laborious that it's often just not done, even when the information is no longer sensitive in any way. One example: The President's daily schedule, saying where they will be and when. It's classified when first written for obvious security reasons, but after the fact, the information about where the President was in the past is no longer secret nor a security risk, but the document still is classified because nobody bothers going through the whole process to declassify it. Jan 27, 2023 at 20:37
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    @dsollen It's hard to know that a classified document exists, since that is itself kept secret, so you'd have trouble knowing what (if anything) there was to request.
    – alphabet
    Jan 27, 2023 at 22:01
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    @alphabet While what you say is true about way to many things being classified. And I might agree with you that the government overclassifies everything (the government also agrees with you that too many things are stamped classified). If a regular person who has access to classified information were to treat classified documents in a similar manner. There is a good chance that said individual doesn't see the sun for the next 20 years. That's the law. But the law only applies to regular people.
    – Questor
    Jan 27, 2023 at 23:36
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There's no single or simple answer to a question like this.

  • some like Trump (or at least what some of his lawyers) insisted they can declassify at will and without paperwork such documents.

  • some (like Pence) said they had no idea they had them, i.e. that they took them inadvertently when their term ended, among boxes of other stuff they were entitled to get.

  • I'm not sure what Biden's line ultimately was as to why he had them, but his lawyers said they worked promptly to return them, once discovered.

This is from my recollection of skimming over such news articles, in the past year. I actually double checked against this BBC "nutshell" piece and my recollection appears correct.

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    There's also "but her emails!" I truly feel sorry for the people who had to use the now-defunct and quite unusable Microsoft Phone for secure texts, and for the people who had been forced to use the Ten Digit Data Transfer Protocol for transferring data from an unclassified network to a classified network. (The latter involves a human reading from the screen of an unclassified computer and typing the information (with their ten digits) into a classified computer.) One part of the problem is that the security burden is so cumbersome that it encourages people to work around it. Jan 26, 2023 at 10:48
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The highest-ranking officials in the US live in a security bubble. They have secret service details, armed escorts, armored limousines, fenced residences with every security precaution... As persons, they are heavily defended, and likely feel that carrying classified information with them is fairly low risk. I mean, if someone could worm their way into the President's or Vice-President's personal residence or office, they'd probably set their sights higher than a bit of wayward classified information. And since being a high-ranking official is effectively a 24/7 job, having pertinent documents in hand is convenient.

And then (of course) the inevitabilities of human nature arise. Documents get put in a drawer and forgotten, or get shuffled in with unrestricted material; things get misplaced during transitions. It's even possible that an ex-President might keep a classified document because he wants to advise the current president about a particular issue. Trump is an unusual case because it seems that he intentionally retained classified documents for his own purposes, unrelated to national interests, but both Biden and Pence seem to fall in the "Oops!" category.

Incidentally, looking at Pence's language on the issue it seems obvious to me that Pence knew he had classified documents in his home — likely (given Pence's nature) for some innocuous purpose — and instructed his lawyers to search to give the appearance that it was a mistake. All very droll... I'm not a fan of Pence, but I don't see any reason to fault him on this.

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I think it is common bad habit. Politicians take home confidential documents because it's their job to read classified docs all the time and it's nicer to catch up on work from your couch than the office desk. It's the only WFH, that they get.

I'd bet that most of these docs are very low-level classified - an overview of the US strength in the aluminum market versus China, for example. Important to know, no risk to national or economic security. And most pols have good home security - active monitoring, quick armed response - so the risk is low.

I'm politically predisposed to think DTrump's situation was less innocent, but that's beyond the scope.

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I think it's pretty clear that a lot of these documents were brought to their homes/new offices when their terms ended when clearing out offices. In some instances, they may have had no knowlege of it happening and never opened the box again. We don't currently know enough to really be sure. I once got laid off and they asked me to leave without clearing out my office. I said goodbye to some friends and my office contents were delivered to me the next day at home. I didn't bother opening them for a couple years.

We know that Trump had some documents in his desk at Mar-a-Lago, so my guess is that not all documents fall into this explanation. But there were also documents located in boxes in storage, so some likely do. Similar with Biden. Boxes at the college, boxes in his garage; unclear if he packed them or ever opened them.

It certainly shows there was poor control of classified materials over a long period of time. It appears that my local public library keeps better records.

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It's interesting that the top answer says that the most likely reason is that the classified document was misplaced. There are people in the government/military who know the exact location of every (at least top secret/important) classified document. The idea that a document was forgotten or misplaced, is very unlikely. That's really an understatement. There are a non-zero number of people who know exactly what documents Trump had "checked out" and where they were when he left office.

So why was something done about that? This is speculation, but the most likely answer to me is that those documents he had contained leverage over his political rivals. This is the entire point of holding on to important classified documents. You can implicate other high level politicians and military leaders and hold some amount of leverage over them. Everyone at the highest level of government does this. Obama, Pelosi, etc also have classified documents. Why were Trump's seized? Because someone didn't want him to have those documents.

Again, this idea that it was an accident or bad habit or a misplacement is laughable.

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