Recent leaders have mishandled classified documents, but is the hype called for?

by Noah Tang

Within the last year, classified material was discovered in the possession of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, and former Vice President Mike Pence. These events have occasioned a great deal of controversy.

According to Matthew Dearden, Cedarville’s Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, “There are a variety of laws and regulations that govern classified documents, and sometimes they are different based on who has control over the documents and based on what the documents contain.”

He gives specific examples of laws that apply to these situations. The Espionage Act – 18 USC §798 involves the disclosure of classified information. 18 USC §2071 involves concealment, removal, or mutilation generally. And 18 USC §1519 involves destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy.

“The penalties are varied, depending on which law is broken,” Dearden said. “A violation of the Espionage Act, for instance, can result in a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Conviction under other laws could be up to 20 years in prison, or three years, depending on the law. Obviously, you can break multiple laws at once & sentences can pile up.”

Dr. Marc Clauson, Professor of History and Law at Cedarville University, added that the Presidential Records Act of 1978 also applies to this situation. “There is no penalty in the Act itself for any violation,” he said. “So any alleged consequence of a violation would be addressed by the Justice Department.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed two special counsels, one for Trump’s case, the other for Biden’s. Garland took this step, as opposed to having the regular Department of Justice, DOJ, investigate, because Trump is currently running for President while Biden is the current President and will likely run too.

“Any time a high profile official is involved, it’s important to be as objective as possible in the investigation. A special counsel will typically provide that. The Justice Department–for better or worse–is often seen as an arm of the current administration, so objectivity can be questioned. Perception is reality in these kinds of investigations,” said Dearden.

The risks from mishandling these documents affect all Americans regardless of their political affiliation, and most citizens are sincerely concerned for national security.

According to Clauson, “It’s very doubtful that any of these threatened national security,” he said. “There are something like 58 million ‘classified’ documents existing, the vast majority of very little if any significance. In fact there is a tendency to over-classify [documents]. There are different levels of classification to start, and then as well, as I said, most of those classified don’t pose a threat.”

The figures in each case have responded to law enforcement differently. Trump’s residence, Mar-a-Lago, was raided last summer. After he turned some documents over, Biden’s home and some of his offices were searched. Pence has also handed over documents and allowed his house to be searched.

Dearden said, “Sometimes, as was the case with Trump, there is a federal subpoena first that asks the person to return the classified documents. If the documents are not returned, a raid may be conducted. A raid is usually conducted after a search warrant is received from a judge. The danger of asking for documents to be handed over, of course, is that they won’t be, or that evidence will be destroyed before officials arrive. A raid allows for the cleanest look at what the home actually has within it, which is probably why it happened in some of these cases.”

Clauson said, “DOJ … can pretty easily get a warrant to search any dwelling if they can show some level of probable cause to a judge. But the political fallout may be a greater problem. Let me say also that warrants to search can be abused, and I wish we had more accountability on that front.”

Noah Tang is a graduate student majoring in Biblical Leadership, and a writer for Cedars. He likes to spend time with friends, ride his bike, and watch movies.

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