Do classified document revelations highlight problems at the National Archives?
Former President Trump is being investigated for improperly handling classified documents. President Biden has also been found to have classified documents in his possession dating back to his time as vice president. Now former Vice President Mike Pence is in a similar situation with mishandling classified documents.
It would not be surprising if other public figures make similar disclosures in the coming months. So, is the problem with the people or the data and information management process used by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)?
There was a time that everything was recorded on paper. This is no longer the case. With the preponderance of information now stored electronically, the concept of classified documents is about classified information, not the physical documents that have been taken, stored, or as we now know, mishandled.
Not all classified information is of equal concern. Any information that can harm the United States, its people and its interests would be considered classified across one of three levels: “Top Secret,” “Secret” or “Confidential.” The levels of classified documents held by the three men remains unclear.
The NARA is responsible for storing and maintaining all presidential records, as outlined in the Presidential Records Act. They provide guidelines to ensure an efficient and complete transfer of presidential documents once a president’s term ends.
This means that physical presidential documents that contain classified information should no longer exist outside the NARA. Based on the recent disclosures, the NARA has either been delinquent, misled or some combination of the two.
In an electronic information world, all paper classified documents should be transferred into electronic form, with paper documents destroyed almost immediately once they are no longer in use. With such a procedure in place, no one could ever mishandle such documents.
Securing classified information is another issue, falling within the broad footprint of cybersecurity.
There are different types of cyber threats that make classified information vulnerable.
First, classified information must be protected from foreign and domestic intruders (cyber criminals) who could use the information for nefarious purposes. Such bad actors represent external threats, much like how each of us must guard our own personal information to reduce the risk of identity theft.
Second, classified information must be protected against people who had prior access to it but no longer have the “need to know.” Such classified information may inadvertently or intentionally end up being used for nefarious actions that compromise American lives and interests.
Given the revelation of classified documents being stored inappropriately, it is likely that many former or current elected officials who once had or have access to classified information are planning their own revelation or perhaps are busy shredding documents that they may have in their possession.
All presidential records are archived after each president leaves office, with the NARA responsible for their storage, management and security. These records include all matters relating to the Presidency, including documents related to the vice president, the White House and numerous other offices and councils under the oversight of the White House. All such documents and the information they contain are owned by the United States, not the individual president.
Although each of the three cases (Trump, Biden and Pence) are quite different, the unfortunate situation that has evolved is that due to either intentional subterfuge, benign lack of oversight or something in between, they are all being lumped together by some critics, fueling classified document witch hunts.
What is certain is that this chain of revelations and the ensuing investigations will distract elected officials from far more pressing issues, like negotiating to raise the debt limit, immigration reform and foreign affairs like the war in the Ukraine, among others.
Moving forward, is there a solution?
What is needed is a revamping of how the NARA collects information, particularly Top Secret and Secret classified information.
The majority of presidential business transacted will have classified components, with most likely confidential. Relying on an end-of-term information dump is neither efficient nor effective.
Information produced daily can be collected in frequent data dumps, with the goal of having such information archived in near real-time. The mechanisms used should not interfere with the president’s affairs and responsibilities. It will also be available in real-time on demand by the president to ensure that access is never compromised.
The NARA eludes to such a system, using a Presidential Diary in cooperation with the Presidential Diarist.Yet, it demands untethered cooperation with each administration. Clearly, such guidance has not been heeded, or a more extensive diarist team is needed.
In our information age with data the salient commodity, such a transformation is not only a good idea, it is a necessary one.
Waiting until the end of a president’s term to collect and archive the majority of a president’s data is 20th-century thinking being applied in a 21st-century information world. By eliminating paper and archiving all information electronically in near real-time, the mishandling of classified documents not only ends, it also effectively become impossible, unless of course bad actors exist within the president’s circle.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.
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