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.
Jacob said the Pence documents were immediately secured in a locked safe. According to a follow-up letter from the lawyer dated Sunday, FBI agents visited Pence’s residence on Thursday night to collect those documents. He was still in Washington at the time.
‘Not to my knowledge’
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. Arrangements were made to deliver those boxes to the National Archives on Monday.
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.
Not a crime
A spokesperson for former U.S. president Barack 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.
Mike Pompeo, who served the Trump administration as secretary of state and is mulling his own 2024 Republican presidential bid, said during a stop in South Carolina in late August that the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate “was a deeply politicized use of the FBI.”
Asked if he took any classified material with him after leaving the administration, Pompeo replied, “no,” adding, “No one should have classified information out of the appropriate place for classified information, anytime, full stop, period.”
Public records show Pence and his wife, Karen, bought their seven bedroom, 10,300 square foot home in Carmel, Ind., in May 2021 — about four months after moving out of the vice-president’s residence in Washington. The Indiana property is spread over a five acre lot just north of Indianapolis.
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.