Current Events: Classified Documents

In recent weeks, the Department of Justice has appointed special counsel investigations into the actions of both current President Joe Biden, and former President Donald Trump. The special counsel’s aim is to investigate each man’s retention of classified documents after they left office. Politically, each party is quick to draw distinct differences between their own member’s action and that of the opposing political party. In addition to the two Presidents, now former Vice President Mike Pence has come forward with information that classified documents were found in his private residence. The National Archives issued a letter to all living former Presidents and Vice Presidents, going back to the Reagan administration, requesting that the former office holders thoroughly search their records to ensure they are not in possession of classified documents, and if any classified documents are found, to immediately turn them over.

The United States has three classification levels for privileged documents, outlined and defined by Executive Order. These three levels include “Confidential”, which applies to information, which upon its unauthorized disclosure, could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security, as identified or could be described by the original classification authority. The next highest level is “Secret”, which applies to information in which unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security. Finally, the highest level is “Top Secret”, which applies to information in which unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. Following the standards and procedures of Executive Order 13526, any federal department or agency head has the ability to classify information or delegate the process of classification to a subordinate. Presidents also have the ability to classify information, in addition to reviewing materials classified by the various federal offices.

In 1951, with the assistance of the relatively short-lived federal organization called the Security Advisory Board, President Harry Truman issued the first executive order, 10290, to establish the modern classification system. This order created uniform definitions and standard practices for handling classified information. The order also connected these new classifications with the Espionage Act of 1917, making sharing classified information with unauthorized people a clear violation of the statute. Twenty seven years later, President Jimmy Carter signed the Presidential Records Act of 1978 into law. The statute governs the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents, and transfers the legal ownership of those records from private to public under the management of the National Archives and Records Administration. Specifically, the act requires that at the end of a Presidential administration, any records created or received by the President as part of their constitutional, statutory, or ceremonial duties are the property of the United States government, managed by the National Archives.

This week’s Current Events resources examine the history and effects of classified documents within the federal government. The resources shared provide information and context regarding the laws, regulations, controversies and conversations around classified documents and their function within the vast federal government.


Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:

  • What are classified documents?
  • What are the various degrees of classification given to documents in the United States federal government? What is the reasoning behind multiple degrees of classification?
  • How does someone become authorized to receive classified documents?
  • What roles do the legislative and judicial branch of the federal government play in providing checks and balances to the executive branch’s power to classify documents?
  • What are the described motivations behind classifying documents?
  • What is the argument being made by those who believe too many documents are now classified? In your opinion, are these arguments valid? Explain.
  • In your opinion, are the security measures currently in place to protect and track federally classified documents sufficient? Explain.    

Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions and Classified Documents Vocabulary

Click here for a hardcopy of Extension Activities CLP suggests implementing with this content





How The Government Tracks Classified Documents—And Why It’s An Imperfect System, Consider This, NPR, January 19, 2023

How Does Security Clearance Work?, Civics 101, NPR

What Biden Miscalculated About His Classified Documents, The Daily, The New York Times, January 24, 2023

How the media is covering allegations that Biden mishandled classified documents, Here & Now, NPR, January 11, 2023


Background Resources:

The Law of Classified Information: A Primer, Lawfare, June 25, 2020

18 U.S. Code § 798 – Disclosure of classified information, United States Code, Cornell Law School 

18 U.S. Code § 1924 – Unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material, United States Code, Cornell Law School 

Classified Documents, The First Amendment Encyclopedia

The Protection of Classified Information: The Legal Framework, Congressional Research Service

Executive Order 13526- Classified National Security Information, The White House

Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, National Archives


Recent Articles:

How Classified Information Is Handled, The New York Times, January 13, 2023

What you need to know about the US classified documents saga, BBC News, January 25, 2023

After Pence, Biden, Trump revelations, Archives asks ex-presidents to check for classified documents, USA Today, January 26, 2023

Classified Documents Get Misplaced All the Time. A Former National Archives Official Explains Why, Time, January 24, 2023

What to know about classified materials and how they’re handled: ANALYSIS, ABC News, January 24, 2023

America’s system for handling classified documents is broken, say lawmakers and former officials, NBC News, January 24, 2023

The Secrets Presidents Keep in Their Garages and Luxury Resorts, The Intercept, January 20, 2023

Biden joins Trump under scrutiny of special counsel investigating classified documents, OPB, NPR, January 14, 2023


Recent Editorials:

On classified documents, secrets, and double standards, The Hill , January 23, 2023

Fix the handling of classified documents, The Philadelphia Tribune, January 24, 2023

Why Do Documents Marked Secret Keep Showing Up in Strange Places?, The New York Times, January 14, 2023

Editorial: Biden, Trump both mishandled classified materials, Daily Camera, January 23, 2023


Lesson Plans:

Bell Ringer: Classification of Government Documents, C-SPAN Classroom Network

Daily News Lessons – 1/13/23, PBS Newshour Classroom 

Video Clip: Classified Biden Documents Found, C-SPAN Classroom Network 

New York Times v. United States (1971), The Bill of Rights Institute 

State’s Secrets: Teaching About WikiLeaks, The Learning Network, The New York Times