Documents with classified markings were discovered in former U.S. vice-president Mike Pence’s Indiana home last week, according to his attorney, the latest in a string of such recoveries from the homes of current and former top U.S. officials.
The records “appear to be a small number of documents bearing classified markings that were inadvertently boxed and transported to the personal home of the former vice president at the end of the last administration,” Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, wrote in a letter to the National Archives shared with The Associated Press.
He said that Pence had been “unaware of the existence of sensitive or classified documents at his personal residence,” until a search last week and “understands the high importance of protecting sensitive and classified information and stands ready and willing to cooperate fully with the National Archives and any appropriate inquiry.”
The revelation came as the U.S. Department of Justice was already investigating the discovery of documents with classification markings in President Joe Biden’s home in Delaware and his former Washington office, as well as former president Donald Trump’s Florida estate. Biden, a Democrat, has indicated he will seek re-election while Pence, a Republican, has been exploring a possible 2024 presidential campaign that would put him direct competition against his former boss.
The newest discovery thrusts Pence, who had previously insisted that he followed stringent protocols regarding classified documents, into the debate over the handling of secret materials by officials who have served in the highest ranks of government.
Trump defends Pence
Trump is currently under criminal investigation after roughly 300 documents with classified markings, including at the top-secret level, were discovered at his Florida estate.
Officials are trying to determine whether Trump or anyone else should be charged with illegal possession of those records or with trying to obstruct the months-long criminal investigation. Biden is also subject to a special counsel investigation after classified documents from his time as a senator and in the Obama administration were found at his properties.
Trump, who denies any wrongdoing, reacted to the new development on his social media site: “Mike Pence is an innocent man. He never did anything knowingly dishonest in his life. Leave him alone!!!”
While a very different case, the Pence development could either dilute or increase the attention on Trump and Biden, who have sought to downplay the importance of the discoveries at their homes. The presence of secret documents at all three men’s homes further underscores the federal government’s unwieldy system for storing and protecting the millions of classified documents it produces every year.
Pence’s lawyer, Jacob, said in his letter that the former vice-president had “engaged outside counsel, with experience in handling classified documents” to review records stored at his home on Jan. 16 “out of an abundance of caution” after the Biden documents became public.
Boxes were not in a secure location
Jacob said the Pence documents with classification markings were immediately secured in a locked safe. FBI agents visited the residence the night of Jan. 19 at 9:30 p.m. to collect the documents that had been secured, according to a follow-up letter from the lawyer dated Jan. 22. Pence was in Washington for an event at the time.
A total of four boxes containing copies of administration papers — two in which “a small number” of papers bearing classified markings were found, and two containing “courtesy copies of vice-presidential papers” — were discovered, according to the letter. Arrangements were made to deliver those boxes to the National Archives Monday.
Congressional leaders were notified of the discovery by Pence’s team on Tuesday.
The boxes, according to a Pence aide, were not kept in a secure location, but were taped shut and were not believed to have been opened since they were packed. The former vice-president’s staff also searched the Washington office of his advocacy group last week and did not discover additional documents, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the search.
Material found in the boxes came mostly from Pence’s Naval Observatory vice presidential residence, the packing of which would not have been handled by the vice-president’s office or its lawyers. Other material came from a West Wing office drawer, the person said.
‘Not to my knowledge’
The National Archives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the discovery, which was first reported by CNN.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment Tuesday, and a lawyer for Pence did not immediately respond to an email seeking elaboration
Pence told The Associated Press in August that he did not take any classified information with him when he left office.
Asked directly if he had retained any classified information upon leaving office, he said, “No, not to my knowledge.”
In a January interview with Fox Business, Pence described a “very formal process” used by his office to handle classified information as well as the steps taken by his lawyers to ensure none was taken with him.
“Before we left the White House, the attorneys on my staff went through all the documents at both the White House and our offices there and at the vice-president’s residence to ensure that any documents that needed to be turned over to the National Archives, including classified documents, were turned over. So we went through a very careful process in that regard,” Pence said.
On Capitol Hill, members of the Senate intelligence committee expressed incredulity over the mishandling of documents by top U.S. officials.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn noted that classified documents are only moved out of the committee’s offices in locked bags.
“In my book, it’s never permissible to take classified documents outside of a secure facility” except by a secure means of transport between such facilities, he said.
House Intelligence Chair Mike Turner, a Republican, said he planned to request a formal intelligence review and damage assessment.
And Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, another potential 2024 candidate, said, “I don’t know how anybody ends up with classified documents. … I mean, every classified document I’ve ever seen has a big ‘Classified’ on it.”
Some Republicans pressed for a search of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s personal records.
Not a crime
A spokesperson for Obama referred to a 2022 statement from the National Archives that said the agency took control of all of Obama’s records after he left office and “is not aware of any missing boxes.”
Freddy Ford, a spokesperson for former U.S. president George W. Bush, told AP that “all presidential record — classified and unclassified — were turned over to [the National Archives] upon leaving the White House.”
A spokesperson for Bill Clinton said all classified documents are in National Archives custody and there have been no instances of any being found elsewhere since he left office in 2001.
A spokesman said former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney didn’t leave office with classified materials and at no point since have any been discovered.
Possessing classified material is not in itself a criminal offence. While some government officials and contractors have been charged, others such as former attorney general Alberto Gonzales and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton were admonished in reports for carelessness but not subject to prosecution.
Defendants have been prosecuted for offences related to the three classifications of documents, in ascending order: confidential, secret and top secret. Top secret classification, according to the Justice Department, represents the type of information where “unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
Documents across the wide range of government agencies are classified for the purpose of national security. In 2010 Congress passed the Reducing Over-Classification Act to try to address the often confusing and complex process.