Faced with a steady stream of disclosures about improperly kept classified documents, the National Archives on Thursday asked former presidents and vice presidents to look for any sensitive and potentially top-secret material they might have, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Many of those former top White House officials already have indicated that they do not have any classified documents in their possession, after reports that President Joe Biden kept such documents in his personal possession from his time as vice president in the Barack Obama administration. Former President Donald Trump and, more recently, his vice president, Mike Pence, also have been found to have such documents in their possession, despite federal statutes requiring that they be given to the National Archives and Records Administration for safekeeping and eventual disclosure to the American public.
An official with one of the recipient offices confirmed the letter to USA TODAY but would not discuss it.
Do other presidents have classified documents?: After Trump, Biden, Pence, are other former presidents holding classified documents? We asked.
What does the National Archives letter request?
In its letter, the archives is asking all former presidents and vice presidents dating back to the Ronald Reagan administration to re-examine their files.
Besides Obama, Biden, Trump and Pence, other recipients of the National Archives request include the offices of former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Reagan – and former vice presidents Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle.
Former President Jimmy Carter would not have received such a letter because, while he signed into law the Presidential Records Act of 1978, it did not go into effect until the start of the Reagan administration on Jan. 20, 1981.
On Wednesday, numerous former White House officials, including Obama, George H.W. Bush, Gore and Quayle issued statements saying that they believed they had complied with all of the requirements of the Presidential Records Act and did not have classified material in their possession.
USA TODAY is seeking comment from representatives of those presidents and vice presidents who received the letter for comment. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Late Thursday, in a statement, George W. Bush’s office said it will respond to NARA’s request: “We understand its purpose and remain confident that no such materials are in our possession.”
Biden and Trump documents expose wider problem:Missing classified records not uncommon
FBI Director Christopher Wray: 'Those rules ... are there for a reason.'
Also Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that the federal law enforcement agency has “had for quite a number of years any number of mishandling investigations. That is unfortunately a regular part of our counterintelligence division’s and counterintelligence program’s work.”
Speaking Thursday at an unrelated news briefing, Wray said that he could not discuss any specific ongoing investigation, but that the FBI has found that there was a need for people to be conscious of laws and rules governing the handling of classified information.
“Those rules,” Wray told reporters, “are there for a reason.”
USA TODAY reported last week that the problem with missing classified documents dates back many administrations, and that it has gotten worse in recent years with the explosion of new forms of electronic communications used by White House officials and the many agencies generating material for their review.
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Trump, Pence, Biden documents
But the controversy took on extra urgency over the past year as Trump refused to turn over classified documents in his possession to the National Archives.
In some cases, Trump has claimed that he pre-emptively declassified all of them before leaving the White House on Jan. 20, 2021, while in others he has said that they are part of his private presidential papers. The Presidential Records Act states that all papers generated in the course of a president’s – and vice president’s – official duties should be handed over to the archives, even notepads that contain doodles and other personal observations made by those officials.
Trump’s refusal to comply prompted the Justice Department to obtain a court-authorized search warrant from a judge, resulting in an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, home and private club on Aug. 8. FBI agents carted off dozens of boxes and identified hundreds of documents.
Mike Pence documents: Classified documents found at former VP Mike Pence's Indiana home
The Trump document controversy was part of a broader federal investigation into potential wrongdoing by the former president that also included his potential role in inciting the mob that broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and temporarily stopped Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Once Trump announced his bid to run for president again, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to continue that investigation, including Trump’s handling of the documents.
Both Pence and Biden have stressed that the documents were inadvertently placed in their possession rather than given to the National Archives, and that they have been pro-actively working with the Archives and Justice Department to resolve the matter.
Garland recently appointed a second special counsel to investigate Biden’s retention of classified documents.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National Archives asks ex-presidents to look for classified documents