Burn Bags and Tracking Numbers: How the White House Handles Classified Files

WASHINGTON — Just hours after the F.B.I. revealed last summer why it raided the Florida home of former President Donald J. Trump, looking for classified documents, a reporter asked President Biden whether it was ever appropriate to take home top secret material.

Nearly drowned out by the roar of Marine One behind him, Mr. Biden made his own admission of sorts.

“I’m taking home with me today, today’s P.D.B.,” he said, referring to the highly classified President’s Daily Brief, the intelligence summary prepared each morning for the occupant of the Oval Office by the nation’s top spies and analysts.

Before stepping onto the helicopter, Mr. Biden explained that his home in Delaware had “a cabined-off space that is completely secure.” And he noted that the P.D.B. was “locked. I have a person with me — military with me. I read it, I lock it back up, and give it to the military.”

The president’s answer — that taking documents home could be fine, “depending on the circumstance” — was an indication of how often Mr. Biden handles classified material and sensitive documents at his Delaware home, in part because he spends nearly every weekend there.

But it also hinted at the little-known process by which such documents are supposed to be created, distributed, secured and ultimately accounted for inside the White House, where almost everyone has some kind of national security clearance.

Current and former officials who have been part of that process, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, described an elaborate National Security Council tracking system for highly sensitive documents like the P.D.B. but a more casual dissemination of the churn of classified documents that are used every day by officials from the president to junior national security aides.

Mr. Biden’s handling of classified documents is under scrutiny and the subject of a Justice Department investigation led by a special counsel, just like Mr. Trump. White House officials insist that the documents discovered in Mr. Biden’s Delaware home were left there inadvertently, and without the president’s knowledge. And they say they have cooperated fully with investigators, while Mr. Trump fought them, even after being subpoenaed.

Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence also acknowledged that aides had discovered a handful of classified documents at his home in Indiana. The National Archives and Records Administration sent a letter to other presidents and vice presidents asking them to examine their collections as well.

But throughout the public admissions and investigations, the answer to one question has remained elusive: How could sensitive documents end up misplaced?

The N.S.C.’s “Intel Shop”

The most highly classified and sensitive materials, like the president’s morning intelligence briefing, are usually created outside of the White House and deep inside the nation’s spy agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency.

Understand the Biden Documents Case

The discovery of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president has prompted a Justice Department investigation.

  • In Washington: Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate the situation drew a mixed reception from Republicans, who had hoped to spearhead the effort themselves.
  • Biden’s Miscalculations: How has Mr. Biden handled the document discoveries, and why was the public in the dark for so long? Michael D. Shear, a White House correspondent for The Times, joined “The Daily” to discuss the ordeal.
  • Implications for Trump Case: Despite the differences between them, the cases involving the president and his predecessor are similar enough that investigators may have a harder time prosecuting Mr. Trump criminally.
  • Democrats’ Reaction: Mr. Biden is facing blowback from some members of his own party, as his allies express growing concern that the case could get in the way of the Democrats’ momentum coming out of the midterms.

When they are ready to be delivered to the president, vice president or other senior official at the White House, they are usually sent through the government’s classified email system, to an office inside the N.S.C. called the “intel shop.”

That office is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and run by a handful of former intelligence officers and others with experience guarding the nation’s secrets. Using special printers connected to the classified email system, the intel shop prints out the documents and assembles them into a binder, according to people familiar with the process.

Once the binder is ready, the person who intends to brief “the principal” — shorthand for the  president or vice president — will come to the intel shop and pick it up. The aide will place the classified material in a briefcase-like bag with a zipper and a lock.

The pickup is logged by officials at the intel shop: a description of the material; who picked it up; what time it left; and the name of the person who was getting the documents.

After the briefing is completed, the aide is supposed to pack the binder in the locked bag and take it back to the intel shop, where its return would be logged and — in most cases — the documents would be placed into “burn bags” and later destroyed, according to several people familiar with the process.

In some cases, however, the principal elects to keep the documents for days or even weeks. In those cases, the intel shop officials are supposed to keep track of what documents are outstanding and remain in touch with the person who picked up the material so it can eventually be returned and disposed of.

Two people who worked in previous administrations, who asked for anonymity to discuss classified material, said officials in the intel shop were typically relentless about making sure the most highly classified documents were given back. Some of those documents are even numbered, to make it easier to trace classified information to a particular person.

One of the people who handled such documents in a previous administration said that a “sliver” of information is protected by the C.I.A. that is highly compartmentalized and very hard to print, and when it is printed, it is usually tracked.

If that kind of information is revealed to be part of the documents found in the homes of Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump or Mr. Pence, the former official said, it would be a breach of the classified information handling rules. It would mean, the official said, that either staff members failed in their duty to keep track of the documents or that someone was trying to willfully keep them in an unauthorized way.

Mixed-Up Meeting Notes

The rules governing the handling of classified documents have been in place at the White House for decades, according to people familiar with them, though how strictly to follow them is up to each president and his aides.

Mr. Trump was frequently more lax with classified information than his peers. In 2019, he posted a classified photo on Twitter of an accident during a rocket launch in Iran. It was later revealed he had taken a photo of the classified image from a briefing document and then posted it.

It remains unclear how classified documents found in Mr. Biden’s home, and at an office he used in Washington, D.C., after leaving the vice presidency, got there. The president’s lawyers have said they date from his time as vice president and senator and have suggested that boxes were inadvertently moved from his White House office when it was packed up at the end of his vice presidency.

The classified information that circulates the White House typically does not contain the government’s most prized secrets. It usually relates to diplomatic or military information, sensitive law enforcement discussions or merely debates that are ongoing and would be damaging if they leaked out, according to people who have worked in previous White Houses.

Many White House officials — and almost all members of the N.S.C. — have clearance to handle secret materials, and most have access to the government’s classified computer network with connections to the intelligence agencies and a printer, which is often used to share information with others at meetings.

Classified documents are routinely distributed before a meeting in the Situation Room or one of the numerous secure offices in the West Wing or the Eisenhower building. During the meeting, any notes scribbled on classified documents become classified as well, and in many cases must be preserved and secured.

President Barack Obama at the White House in February 2016.Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

But most of the information that is discussed and traded at such meetings every day is not managed by the intel shop, officials said. The documents are not numbered or tracked. And while most are supposed to be put in large bags to be shredded, not everything ends up there.

Several people who have participated in such meetings said officials frequently take those documents back to their offices, making it easy for them to mix with unclassified information.

“My experience would increase the likelihood that it just got mixed in with other stuff,” said Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel for President Barack Obama and who recalled that people frequently handled classified material, especially during meetings with the president. “Everybody in the meeting was supposed to read them by the time they showed up.”

But most of the time, Mr. Eggleston said, nobody ever came around after the meeting and said, “Where is that?”

The Weekend White House

Most presidents have traveled frequently on the weekends.

Mr. Trump spent many Saturdays and Sundays at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida or his home in Bedminster, New Jersey. Former President George W. Bush spent many weeks at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Ronald Reagan often conducted business at his home in Southern California.

But few have done so with as much regularity as Mr. Biden.

For most of the past five decades — first as a senator, then as vice president, and now as president — Mr. Biden has left Washington most Fridays for Wilmington, Del., returning to the nation’s capital on Sunday or Monday. National security and military aides accompany Mr. Biden to Wilmington whenever he goes there, to be available for in-person briefings if necessary.

In a CBS News interview in September, Mr. Biden reacted to the discovery of classified information at Mr. Trump’s house and the yearlong refusal by the former president to return information that some reports said contained highly sensitive nuclear secrets. He said his predecessor’s actions made him wonder “how anyone can be that irresponsible.”

But just months later, Mr. Biden’s actions are being investigated as well. And while his lawyers have pledged to be far more cooperative than those representing Mr. Trump, they have so far offered little information about the documents themselves and how they got there.

“We have attempted to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with the established norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity,” said Bob Bauer, the president’s personal attorney, the day after the F.B.I. discovered more classified documents in Mr. Biden’s Wilmington home after searching for almost 13 hours.

Mr. Biden has not commented on the issue since that day.

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