January 28, 2023

The U.S. government creates millions of classified documents annually. How does it keep track of them — and how does it know when one is missing?


We’re awaiting more details on the mishandling of classified documents linked to President Biden and to his predecessor, Donald Trump. In the meantime, the rest of the government keeps churning out classified documents, millions every year. So we wanted to know more about how the government keeps track of them and how it can know when some go missing. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to explain. Hey, Greg.


SHAPIRO: So with Biden and Trump, it appears that documents were mishandled during the transition as administrations changed over. Is that a particularly vulnerable moment? Is it an issue in other parts of the government?

MYRE: Well, the short answer is no. When presidents leave office, they’re required to return all these records over to the National Archive. But this isn’t the case with other government agencies. The CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department – they keep these same classified records at their offices so they can continue to refer to them. And this helps explain why White House records can be vulnerable to mishandling. Every administration has to clean house, creating a possibility that some material doesn’t go where it’s supposed to.

SHAPIRO: OK. So other government agencies don’t have to do this housecleaning, but they still create millions of classified records. So how do they keep track of it all?

MYRE: So I spoke with people who’ve worked at the CIA and the NSA and other national security outfits, and they said there is no master list. I ask if these agencies could, for example, just do a computer search for all the classified documents that they’d created yesterday or last week or last year. And I was told the answer is no. Now, when national security agencies create classified documents, they often share them with other agencies. And a small portion of them, the ones that are most important and sensitive, will make their way to the White House. And these agencies keep their own classified documents in-house. But they don’t have a list of every document they create. And they don’t know what happens when a document goes to another agency or even the White House.

SHAPIRO: And I imagine it becomes even more complicated if that classified document is on paper, less searchable than an electronic file on a computer. Would it be easier to track everything if it was all electronic?

MYRE: Yeah, Ari, that is true. And now most classified material – but not all of it – is electronic. And you’ll partly run into some generational issues here. Younger officials are more comfortable with electronic records. Some older officials may request physical documents. For example, President Obama read his daily security brief on his iPad. Trump and George W. Bush liked to be briefed verbally. Now, I spoke about this with retired intelligence officer Larry Pfeiffer. At the CIA, he was chief of staff. He also served at the White House, where he ran the Situation Room when Barack Obama was president and Joe Biden was vice president.

LARRY PFEIFFER: There are some things that just are not delivered electronically. Some of the most sensitive source material that comes out of CIA is often only produced on paper. And that’s to prevent some internal threat hacking in and then, you know, putting stuff on a storage device or something and walking out the door with it.

SHAPIRO: You say he worked at the CIA and the White House. Did he see a difference in the CIA, where people are career intelligence officers, and the White House, where there’s kind of a rotating cast of characters?

MYRE: Yeah. To some degree, the answer is yes. At the CIA, you – protecting classified material is just drilled into you from Day 1. And at the White House, you’re dealing with people who have a politics background. They do get training and reminders on dealing with classified documents. But it’s not something they’re doing every day for years. And even that said, mishandling material can happen to anyone. Again, here’s Larry Pfeiffer.

PFEIFFER: I don’t want to say routine because I don’t want some people to think this is something that happens five times a day. But, I mean, it’s a situation that happens enough. I mean, we actually have a term. We refer to it as a spillage. You know, when classified material is discovered somewhere it is not supposed to be, we call it a spill. So it’s a term of art that has developed because it happens enough.

SHAPIRO: So is there classified material out there that, like, nobody knows about, maybe not even the person who has it?

MYRE: That’s almost certainly the case, Ari. I spoke with Glenn Gerstell, the former general counsel at the National Security Agency, and he noted this particular irony. If you’re a junior staffer, the likelihood of mishandling classified material is actually quite low. You’ll be in a secure room at your agency. You walk in empty-handed. You get briefed, read some classified documents. Then you walk out empty-handed. So there’s no real way to accidentally walk off with documents. But if you’re the president or secretary of state or CIA director, you’re getting a stream of documents at your desk all day, both classified and unclassified. And this creates the possibility you could mix them together in a folder and inadvertently walk out with them.

SHAPIRO: That’s NPR’s Greg Myre. Thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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