WASHINGTON — The parallel investigations into how President Biden and former President Donald Trump handled classified documents have made for an extraordinary moment in Washington, with a special counsel appointed to each case by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
And Tuesday brought the revelation that classified documents were found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s home, seemingly broadening the scope of the controversy.
But firestorms over classified documents and presidential records have a long, frequently scandalous history. Previous controversies over how such documents are handled have sometimes stemmed from carelessness and hubris, as well as the timeless desire of the powerful to conceal the truth.
1976: A young Biden confronts a CIA nominee
In late 1976, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ted Sorensen to serve as director of the CIA. Sorensen had been President John F. Kennedy’s top speechwriter and close adviser, including during the Cuban missile crisis. He knew “the inner workings of the decision-making process within the White House,” Carter said in announcing the nomination.
That turned out to be the problem.
Although President Lyndon Johnson convinced him to stay on to help with the transition after Kennedy's assassination, Sorensen left in 1964. Intending to write about his time in the Kennedy administration, he took along some classified documents.
When it came time for his nomination hearings to serve as CIA director, Sorensen encountered predictable opposition from Republicans. More surprising was the about-face of a young senator from Delaware who had first supported Sorensen but appeared to be rattled by revelations about how he had handed classified information: Joe Biden.
“I think we're in trouble. I think it is going to be tough,” Biden told Carter in a phone call.
Sorensen also faced questions about having registered as a noncombatant during World War II, but it was the handling of Kennedy-era documents that appeared to be the greater impediment.
On the day his confirmation hearings were to begin, Sorensen withdrew his nomination. As he did so, he defended himself against charges of impropriety. “My handling of classified information was at all times in accordance with the then-existing laws, regulations and practices,” he said.
Biden’s role in sinking the Sorensen nomination has been discussed in recent days, as he faces questions about his own alleged carelessness. (The entire episode, with all its political and national security complexities, was recently detailed in an Intercept article.)
1989: No documents, no charges
The issue of classified documents would loom again during the Iran-Contra affair, whose unraveling dominated Ronald Reagan’s second term in office. Led in part by Lt. Col. Oliver North, then working at the National Security Council, the clandestine project involved selling arms to Iran to fund Nicaraguan fighters who opposed Managua’s socialist regime.
Once Iran-Contra came to light, a special court acting at the behest of Attorney General Edwin Meese appointed Lawrence E. Walsh as an independent counsel to investigate the matter.
The congressional hearings into Iran-Contra in 1987 would last 41 days, culminating in Reagan’s famous apology: “There’s nothing I can say that will make the situation right.”
Although Walsh wanted to charge North and others — including his NSC superior John Poindexter — with conspiracy, he was unable to do so because Reagan insisted on keeping certain documents classified, making prosecution impossible.
“The classified information in question was already publicly known, but the Administration declined to engage in meaningful consultation with Independent Counsel before making its decision,” Walsh would write in his report on Iran-Contra.
“Congress could not have intended,” Walsh wrote with obvious frustration, for legal statutes pertaining to classified documents to be “used by the attorney general to control prosecutions of independent counsel.”
1999: The spy chief who worked from home
John Deutch may be known best in popular culture as the Central Intelligence Agency director who in 1996 appeared at a boisterous town hall at a Los Angeles high school to deny allegations that covert operations were flooding the United States with crack cocaine from Latin America.
In Washington, he is remembered for an entirely different controversy.
The product of elite institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Deutch was a trained chemist who was serving as a high-ranking Pentagon deputy when President Bill Clinton nominated him to serve as CIA director in 1995.
R. James Woolsey had resigned from that post the previous December because of intense criticism following the discovery that a CIA case officer, Aldrich Ames, was spying for Russia.
The new nominee seemed promising. “His colleagues say he has a first-class mind, with an ego and energy to match it,” the New York Times said. “In two years at the Pentagon, Mr. Deutch has shaken up multibillion-dollar programs, taken a leading role on foreign policy issues, confronted the problem of the spread of nuclear weapons and represented the United States abroad.”
But he apparently found the CIA director position frustrating and, in August 1996, announced he was leaving the post. “He has never been comfortable with the CIA culture," a Deutch confidant told the Washington Post.
Deutch went on to teach at MIT, which he had done before his Pentagon posting. But the CIA was not quite done with its outgoing director.
After his departure from the agency, “CIA specialists went to his Washington home to remove a classified computer and safe,” the Washington Post would report. “They discovered 31 files containing highly sensitive classified information on his personal computer.”
A consummate Washington insider, Deutch avoided prosecution, but CIA Director George Tenet stripped him of his security clearance for three years, a humiliating consequence for one of the nation’s top intelligence figures.
Deutch would concede that he “erred in using CIA-issued computers that were not configured for classified work to compose classified documents and memoranda.”
But he also defended himself, arguing that it was “absolutely necessary” for him to work at home.
2003-04: 'Professorial absentmindedness'
Sandy Berger was, as the Atlantic magazine referred to him, Bill Clinton’s “most trusted foreign policy adviser.” He is credited with helping India and Pakistan avert a nuclear confrontation. He was an assiduous proponent of attempting to foster a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Serving as national security adviser during Clinton’s second term, Berger was also one of the top White House officials confronting the burgeoning threat of al-Qaida. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Berger and others in the Clinton administration would be accused of not having taken it seriously enough.
After 9/11, planning for which had begun during Clinton’s time in office, Clinton asked Berger to act as his administration’s liaison to the committee investigating the attacks.
This would involve searching through the National Archives, to remember and piece together all the times the Clinton administration could have stopped Osama bin Laden but didn’t.
National Archives employees would observe, according to a Washingtonian article, that Berger “made little effort to hide his annoyance with the assignment he had been given by his old friend and boss Bill Clinton.”
Throughout 2002 and 2003, Berger made four trips to the National Archives to review classified materials pertaining to the tracking of bin Laden.
The review process only deepened his frustration at the task Clinton had assigned him. “He realized he was not going to be able to reconstruct in detail all the documents he had reviewed, so he needed to take his notes with him, about ten to twenty pages,” a subsequent investigation found.
There was no legal way for Berger to remove the documents from the National Archives. So he decided to skirt the law. A congressional report would describe Berger’s subterfuge:
At the end of the day, Mr. Berger tri-folded his notes and put them in his suit pocket. He took the opportunity to do this when [Senior Official 1] was out of her office due to him being on a private phone call. Mr. Berger said he did not recall being hesitant to remove his suit jacket during this visit. However, at some point, him not removing his jacket could have been related to the fact he placed the notes in his jacket. Mr. Berger knew he had to leave some notes behind so it would not be obvious he removed notes.
Even though staffers at the National Archives were growing suspicious — Berger was apparently difficult to deal with — he continued to engage in reckless behavior.
His most audacious act took place during his final visit to the National Archives, on Oct. 2, 2003, when, according to the subsequent investigation:
Mr. Berger exited the Archives on to Pennsylvania Avenue, the north entrance. It was dark. He did not want to run the risk of bringing the documents back in the building risking the possibility [Senior Official 1] might notice something unusual. He headed towards a construction area on Ninth Street. Mr. Berger looked up and down the street, up into the windows of the Archives and the DOJ, and did not see anyone. He removed the documents from his pockets, folded the notes in a ‘V’ shape and inserted the documents in the center. He walked inside the construction fence and slid the documents under a trailer.
Berger’s mishandling of the documents was discovered in 2004 and subsequently investigated by the FBI. He chalked the controversy up to what one press report described as his “professorial absentmindedness,” but there was little patience for such errors in the post-9/11 world.
In 2005, Berger pleaded guilty to improperly handling classified materials and paid a $50,000 fine. “I let considerations of personal convenience override clear rules of handling classified material,” he said.
2008: Secrets from the War on Terror
Serving as U.S. attorney general during the second term of the George W. Bush administration, Alberto Gonzales was privy to some of the most sensitive information emerging from what the White House had deemed the Global War on Terror.
Gonzales resigned in 2007, as post-9/11 fears waned and questions about Bush’s treatment of terrorism suspects and surveillance of Americans began to grow louder. Gonzales also incurred criticism for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys because of their perceived political differences with the Bush administration.
“Alberto Gonzales was never the right man for this job,” Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said at the time.
Then came a tip from the White House to the Department of Justice: Throughout his time as attorney general, Gonzales had allegedly mishandled highly sensitive information pertaining to antiterrorism operations, including a secret National Security Agency surveillance program.
The classified documents consisted of Gonzales’s own notes. “We found that Gonzales took his classified handwritten notes home and stored them there for an indeterminate period of time,” a subsequent investigation found.
Gonzales ultimately faced no charges.
When, earlier this month, Biden’s own mishandling of classified material came to light, Gonzales said that appointment of a special counsel was merited.
2012: A general’s downfall
Celebrated for his role in commanding American military forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus was chosen by President Barack Obama to serve as the director of the CIA in 2011.
Two months after he was confirmed that September, Petraeus began an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The following year, Broadwell became convinced that a Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley, also had designs on Petraeus.
“You need to take it down a notch,” Broadwell (using an anonymous account) warned Kelley, who was known to have close social relations with several high-ranking military officials at MacDill Air Force Base.
Kelley grew concerned enough to contact the FBI. The ensuing investigation not only uncovered the Broadwell-Petraeus affair but, more important, revealed that Petraeus had shared classified documents with Broadwell while she was writing her biography of the four-star general, “All In.”
The classified information came from so-called black books that Petraeus kept. These contained, according to a plea deal he later made, “classified information regarding the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and [Petraeus’s] discussions with the President of the United States of America.”
Petraeus resigned from the CIA in 2012, after details of the Broadwell affair became public. Three years later he pleaded guilty to passing her classified materials.
Like others who committed similar errors, Petraeus went on to have a long and lucrative career in the private sector.