Biden classified documents discovery: From where the information was found to probe, here’s what we know


United States president Joe Biden now appears to be in a world of pain.

After it emerged that Joe Biden was in possession classified documents from his time as vice president under the Barack Obama administration at his private office in Washington DC, on Thursday it was reported that a second set of classified documents was recovered from the garage of Biden’s personal residence in Wilmington.

Reacting to the news, the US president had earlier said that he didn’t know what was in the documents and that he was “surprised to learn there were any government records that were taken there to that office.” He reasserted that his team was “cooperating fully” and has turned the material over to the National Archives and Records Administration.

For the second cache of documents, Biden said that the documents were kept in a locked storage space where his Corvette was also held. “My Corvette’s in a locked garage, okay?” Biden stressed. “So it’s not like they’re sitting out on the street.”

The revelations of the documents has snowballed with Attorney General Merrick Garland appointing Robert Hur, a former US attorney in Maryland, to oversee the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into how several batches of documents marked as classified ended up at Biden’s house and at the offices of the president’s Washington think tank. This comes after Attorney General Merrick Garland had initially tasked John Lausch, a US attorney based in Chicago — and a Trump appointee — with investigating the Biden matter further.

The discovery of the documents has also become a political row with the Republicans demanding to see visitor logs for Biden’s homes, arguing that the discovery of classified files at one of his residences is a national security risk.

We take a deep dive into the entire issue — from what constitutes a classified document, the discovery of them at Biden’s office and house and what’s next for the US president.

Classified documents, explained

Before we delve into the topic of Biden, first let’s understand what are classified documents and their handling.

Classified information refers to documents or other mediums of intelligence that the government has deemed sensitive and therefore a potential threat to national security if released in an unauthorised way.

The US government has categorised classified information into three categories, depending on how sensitive the information is: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret.

The first category, being the lowest level, is confidential and is information that is determined to have the potential to cause danger to the national security with unauthorised release.

The next is Secret — information that would, with unauthorised release, be expected to cause “serious” damage to the national security.

The final and most important is Top Secret: information would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security” if there was an unauthorised release.

According to The Conversation, at the top secret level, some information is “compartmented.” That means only certain people who have a top secret security clearance may view it. Sometimes this information is given a “code word” so that only those cleared for that particular code word can access the information. This is often used for the most highly sensitive information.

But who decides what is classified or not?

The power to classify documents was enumerated in Executive Order 13256 signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. The authority to take certain pieces of information and classify it as top secret is given to the president and vice president, agency heads and officials designated by the president and other US government officials bestowed the authority by agency heads.

The handling of classified documents is also clearly mentioned with laws stating that documents must be handled in a way that protects the integrity and confidentiality of the information they contain. This includes storing documents in a safe or other authorised storage containers.

If staff members need to move them from one place to another, they must follow security protocols to do so.

Though classified information can be taken off the premises in the course of official duties, taking classified documents home is prohibited by executive order. Once a president demits office, he can no longer hold on to the documents and must be handed over to the National Archives.

The President Records Act, brought in after Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, governs the storage the rules on presidential records and classified files of the White House.

About the Biden documents

Richard Sauber, the special counsel to the US president, said the first cache of documents were discovered on 2 November when the “president’s personal attorney were packing files housed in a locked closet to prepare office space at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, DC”. The Penn Biden Center is the US president’s think-tank and he used the space “periodically” before his 2020 presidential campaign.

This revelation came out only early this week, with it being revealed that the National Archives contacted the Justice Department about the matter on 4 November.

Then on Thursday, Sauber revealed that Biden’s lawyers had “discovered among personal and political papers a small number of additional Obama-Biden Administration records with classified markings” in the Wilmington (Delaware) residence.

“All but one of these documents were found in storage space in the President’s Wilmington residence garage,” Sauber said, adding, “One document consisting of one page was discovered among stored materials in an adjacent room.”

The possession of classified documents by Biden has prompted the DOJ to begin an investigation in the matter, with Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing the appointment of a special counsel — former career Justice Department prosecutor and former US Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert Hur — to investigate the discovery of classified documents.

Following his appointment, Hur said he will conduct the assigned investigation with fair, impartial, and dispassionate judgment. “I intend to follow the facts swiftly and thoroughly, without fear or favour, and will honour the trust placed in me to perform this service,” he said in a statement.

How it compares to the Trump situation

US president Biden now finds himself in a precarious situation as questions are being raised on how the circumstances compare with the seizure last year of hundreds of documents marked as classified from Mar-a-Lago, the Florida residence of former President Donald Trump.

At the basic level, both situations are similar. Both involve a president taking officials files bearing classification markings into their personal possession, despite the Presidential Records Act stating otherwise.

However, there are differences in the Biden and Trump case. First off, is the volume of documents. The Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually recovered more than 300 classified documents from Trump’s private club and residence, Mar-a-Lago, last year, according to government court filings. Compare that to the around 12 files that were recovered from Biden.

The second difference is how the documents were found and the way the two leaders have reacted to the discovery. In Biden’s case, his team found the documents and quickly and voluntarily returned them to government custody.

Trump, on the other hand, delayed responding to the National Archives’ repeated requests for months, then failed to fully comply with the subpoena while falsely saying they had. Trump has repeatedly attacked the National Archives for telling the Justice Department about the matter and portrayed the investigation as illegitimate. A federal judge is considering holding his team in contempt for defying the subpoena.

In Trump’s case, investigators are looking at possible charges of obstruction of justice or destruction of records as well as the possible mishandling of government secrets. No such allegation has been levelled in the Biden matter, although the investigation is at an earlier stage.

However, the documents will pose a political problem for Biden. In a Republican-controlled Congress, there could be another investigation launched against the Biden administration.

On the latest news, newly-elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that Congress has an obligation to investigate President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents. McCarthy said, “I see it could go from that committee or others, but I think Congress has to investigate this.”

McCarthy also said he didn’t see the difference between the two situations — Biden and Trump.

With inputs from agencies

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Biden classified documents discovery: From where the information was found to probe, here’s what we know
Biden classified documents discovery: From where the information was found to probe, here’s what we know
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