Shield Sheds Light: Classified Documents



As classified documents are being mishandled, worries rise from the public on our government’s competence.

Alex Banerjee, News Editor

In the past month, the FBI has searched and uncovered classified documents in the homes of both President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence. This brings up an important discussion on the handling of classified documents in America.

Classified documents are official papers, records, or information that have been designated as sensitive by the government. The information is considered vital to national security, and must be protected from unauthorized access or disclosure.

Within classification there are levels ​​determined by the potential damage that could be caused by the release of the information. The three levels used in America are confidential, secret, and top secret, with confidential being the lowest.

The strictness of who gets each level of security clearance to access the materials coincides with the level of potential danger.

The controversy surrounding this subject arises when there are concerns that the President or other high-level government officials may not be following proper security protocols. By law, presidents and vice presidents must return government documents to the National Archives when they leave office.

In August of last year, the FBI conducted an unprecedented raid on former President Donald Trump’s Mara Lago estate for classified documents from his term. During the raid they discovered dozens of sets of documents at all three levels of classifications, bringing criticism from both the political left and right.

For the subsequent months, discussion on the classified documents continued, with Democrats being highly critical of the Trump Administration’s mishandling of documents.

Just when the controversy was thought to have died down, Biden was found to have documents at his residences. In fact, four separate searches on his residences have found documents from when he was the vice-president to former President Obama and a senator of Delaware.

This time the majority of the criticism was coming from the Republicans, with arguments resembling the Democrats’ just few weeks prior.

Just as tensions continued to flare, Pence, the former Vice-President to Donald Trump, was also found to have about a dozen classified documents.

Now three former leaders since Aug. 2022 have been found to have kept classified documents in their properties. What are the implications for our government?

Firstly, when classified documents are not stored in secure government facilities, they can be vulnerable to theft, loss, or unauthorized access. This could potentially result in the release of sensitive information which could have serious consequences for national security.

The National Archive serves as a location to properly keep classified documents to insure safety. When our leaders mishandle the materials, it undermines the purpose of the National Archive.

This specific case is not the first time in American history that classified documents were leaked or put in danger of leaking due to mishandling. In June of 1971, the New York Times leaked what is known as the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers detailed the US government’s role in political and military operations from World War II to 1968 and the Vietnam War. Due to mishandling of the classified information, they were handed to NYT researcher David Elsberg, unauthorized.

What was found in the documents caused public outcry from both the domestic and international fronts. The papers revealed that the government had secretly enlarged their military actions in Vietnam and that the war was not of a moral reason but to contain China.

American History and AP Government teacher, Joe Youngbauer explained his view on the situation as a whole. “There are things behind closed doors that the American people need to know but there are also things behind closed doors that protect us” he stated. ““With everything that has happened, there’s got to be some reflection and changes with some of that stuff”

Americans deserve to know about the actions from the government that directly hurt them, but classification is important with national security. If the US government does not contemplate what has gone wrong over the past few years, classified documents will continually be mishandled, possibly causing further harm to the citizens.

Secondly, it reinforces the growing sentiment in the public that our government is inefficient or not working well. When the top people in a nation cannot keep track of classified documents, faith in the government plummets.

Senior Jacob Cox echoed many of the publics’ points when speaking on this subject. “I believe government officials should face severe repercussions for such conduct” he stated. “Not only does it make the U.S. look foolish, but it leaves very important documents in a position where they may be stolen and put into the wrong hands.”

Much of the outcry from the American populous is based on the surface level understanding of this intricate topic.

Youngbauer commented on the public sentiment during situations like this. “When you hear ‘classified’, just as the observing public, you immediately are like ‘that shouldn’t be taken from government [buildings]’” he explained.

Many of the papers found in the homes were simply letters written by the President. Even top-secret is often a misnomer, as 1.3 million people in the government have security clearance to access top-secret information.

In fact, classified documents are also not unique. On average, 50 million records are classified every year, with some years like 2012 reaching 90 million.

Youngbauer believes that the public and government should be asking some questions to ourselves. “Number one, do we classify too many documents? We don’t know a lot about all the contents, but I think we should ask if we classify too many documents first” he determined. “Number two, with the administrative and checking nature of what kind of oversight we have, we need to ask if there is a need for more clarity or clarification on what [classification] means.”

Oversight is incredibly important in the functioning of our government, and it has failed in these situations. As classification in America continues to spin this complex and superfluous web, our leaders will inevitably fall victim to it jeopardizing the citizen’s safety within the country. Reflection and restructuring of the classification of information in America is no easy job, but if the government wants to ensure national safety, it is a necessary one.